Listening In

Are you an eavesdropper? I am. I can’t help but tune in to the conversations around me. It’s part of being a writer to take everything in, to notice, to study human behavior. I have a bad habit of becoming more tuned in to the conversation at the next table than I am to the one at my own–if, of course, the one at the next table is more interesting.

Among the many fascinating snippets of conversation I’ve overheard, I was walking my dog in the park the other day and heard a woman say to her friend as they passed me, “…And then I told him he’d better get that woman the hell out of my house…” Oh how I wanted to change directions and hear the rest of that conversation. But I didn’t, so I’m left to imagine the rest.

That particular snippet, if it’s about what I imagine it was, confirms for me the reliability of human nature. We tend to do what we tend to do. We make the same mistakes again and again, person after person, and we react the way one would expect, time and time again. We aren’t so different, any of us. Except, occasionally, people do say unexpected things and behave in unexpected ways. These people are worth writing stories about.

When we imagine fictional characters, we must strike a balance between believability and uniqueness. A memorable character is someone we can identify with but whose actions may take our breath away with their freshness, bravery, and originality. Such people cause the plot of a novel to twist and turn in unexpected ways.

I recently read The Little Known by Janice Daugherty, and the main character, Knot, struck me with his bravery and generosity in the face of incredible adversity. He didn’t buckle, as most of us would have. He made unexpected but believable choices, and he proved himself to be a hero even though that wasn’t a word he would have ever used to describe himself. The contrast between how he sees himself and how the reader sees him adds to his originality.

For writers, eavesdropping can create interesting little opportunities to craft such characters. Most of what we hear is predictable, but a snippet of conversation is a chance to say “what if?” What if that overheard conversation isn’t about what you think it is? And what if an ordinary conversation could lead to extraordinary actions?

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