Where to Find Story Ideas: People

Good morning, squiders! It’s Wednesday, so I suppose we should get to work for the week.

Today, continuing on with our inspiration theme, we’re going to talk about an endless font of ideas: other people.

There’s a reason ‘people watching’ can be so interesting. Behind every person is a life, a story, hopes and dreams and relationships and problems. Sure, most of these are probably mundane, but you don’t know, and so you can make them anything you want. That girl more running than walking down the sidewalk? Sure, she’s probably about to miss her bus, but maybe she knows the government agency she escaped from is on her tail and she’s trying to move quickly without being obvious.

That man who seems to be looking around like there’s a weight off his shoulder might finally be free of an abusive relationship. The person wandering around like they’re not sure where they are might just have been dropped off an alien spaceship. The girl with the infectious laughter could be a fairy just stopping through on her way back to the Other Side.

People watching can be used for a variety of uses. If you’re making up an identity for a random person, why are they there? What are they doing? What are their goals? You can use it for plot or character purposes, for worldbuilding or even just to find a story premise.

Back when I was in college, we had an assignment in my acting class where, over a period of several weeks, we found someone through people watching (I hopefully inconspicuously stalked a young woman through the local Barnes and Noble), wrote down what we noticed about them (appearance, mannerisms, etc.) and over time developed a backstory for them, identified a conflict, and wrote out a scene, which we then acted out in class (as our final, more or less). It was very emotionally intense, but also very rewarding. This process is easily transferable to the writing process.

Characterization is perhaps the most direct and obvious use for other people. Aside from people-watching, you can always take aspects of people you know or people you encounter and transfer them directly into fiction.

NOTE: Be careful to not be too obvious when using real people as characters. Aspects are almost always better. If real people can tell your character is supposed to be them, and take offense, you might find yourself accused of libel.

You can also take aspects from a variety of people and combine them into a new person.

Along similar lines, conversations can be useful for story fodder. Have you ever passed two people in conversation and just caught a line or two, but what you heard made you wonder what possible context said conversation could have? While I don’t recommend purposefully eavesdropping on people (it’s rude and people tend to notice), if you catch a conversation here or there that seems usable, it doesn’t hurt to make note of it for later.

Conversations can be useful for characterization, but they tend to be more useful for premises or plots, or to flesh out subplots or conflict within a story. Why would someone say that? What’s the story behind the comment? Who would say something like that, and what could they possibly mean by it?

Unlike some of the other methods, these can be a little harder to use spontaneously. A good snip of conversation can be rare, which is why it’s important to make note when you hear one. People watching can also be hit or miss, and can also be time consuming. If you have an afternoon available to sit in a pedestrian mall and see who you find, great! Again, you can always make note of interesting people or ideas that come to you for later, even if they’re not relevant at the moment.

Anything you would add, Squiders? Questions?

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