I was working on this story and I needed a couple of characters – a teen and her grandmother.
I thought it would be simple enough to find them in my memory bank or patch them together from teens and grandmothers I know. Unfortunately my memory bank was out of fresh new original teens and grandmothers. All it held was stereotypes. It offered me versions of short-skirted teens and white-haired, knitting grandmothers. No thank you.
I could patch characters together from those I know. I could take bits of the skinny teen next door with her dark, knowing eyes and blend her in with … actually it seems that I don’t know that many teen age girls.
Grandmothers should be easier. I know tons of those. There’s the globe-trotter, the business woman from China, the gardener, the soap opera maven. Somehow they don’t blend together well.
I needed some characters that have the breath of reality. So I went shopping. I started by looking for the teen. I hung out at a fast food joint, a coffee shop and the sports clothing store after school was out. I found plenty of teens to choose from.
Physically I saw a complete range of height, weight and coloring. And, despite the company uniform, it didn’t take long to pick out the character traits. Training of new hires only goes so far. In no time I found the little eager-to-help girl, the lazy one who always looked busy but did almost nothing, the self-important one with obvious management potential and the one who somehow always managed to be near a man, flirting.
I could see it in where they stood, how they stood and moved, in their eye contact and in their voice. Where I live they are trained to ask a customer “Can I help you find something?” (“Yes, please. I’m looking for a character for my short story. Which shelf are they on?”)
Can I help you find something?
– full eye contact, leaning forward a little, smiling, a voice that is truly asking the question (“I really would like to help you”)
– bored, no eye contact, leaning on a counter, voice flat (“After my stupid shift is over I’m going to a movie.”)
– thrusting herself in front of me, erect posture, alert like a robin who has sensed a worm. (“If I can upsell this woman something expensive it’ll make my sales stats look good.”)
Bingo! Teen shopping completed I came away with just the teen I needed percolating in my mind. Now for the grandmother. I needed her to have seen life but not been brilliantly successful at it so I headed to Walmart.
People of all ages work there but many have earned a lot of candles on their birthday cake. They also have faces that tell you life has not always been easy.Their feet hurt, their hips hurt, and part of their mind is worrying about…
I hung out by the specials near the door, with one eye on the greeters and the other eye on the cashiers. Then a stock clerk walked by with layers of women’s sweaters over her arm. Bingo again! She was perfect. Exactly who I hadn’t known I needed: reddish hair, a no-nonsense manner and eyes that had seen pain and were just waiting for trouble to strike again.
I followed her to the racks. She gave me a look that said she expected me to complain and she was bracing herself for it. I asked her a vague question about pink shades and struck up a short conversation, watching as the apprehension faded from her eyes. I managed to make her smile and I thanked her for her help. And I noted the way she used her words, how her hands kept working even as she talked, her odd little gesture of shaking her head sideways and the tension that never left her shoulders.
Shopping done I headed home, with teen and grandmother nestled together in my brain.