I need to tell you something, but here’s the thing. This is super risky, because I may know something that doesn’t need to be known. I may end up in the witness protection program this very afternoon, forced to forever leave my family and friends because I know too much. For all you know, every blog post written after this one may be written by an impersonator who has intricately studied my writing style for the past eight years.
You see, I love my wife’s grandmother, but I think she may be a secret agent. I don’t make this accusation lightly, it comes after years of observation and study. By day she’s an ordinary administrative bookkeeper, but that’s just a cover for her real job as a detective extraordinaire.
The pieces fit together just a little too perfectly. The highly specific gaps in her knowledge about how to use technology. The fact that she can successfully bargain for a cheaper price on anything from car tires to health insurance. Her unwavering resolve towards sticking to her opinions, even when the evidence seems to point otherwise. Her physical endurance enabling her to shop longer than anyone in their twenties. These aren’t the features of a simple grandmother. These are machinations of someone highly trained, insanely intelligent, and incredibly resourceful. It’s fascinating.
Fine, I guess the explanation could be much simpler. Instead of spending the last decade uncovering a conspiracy, maybe I just have an overactive imagination. There are two things I love: people-watching and telling stories about people. Each person I see is a character sketch for a world far more interesting than the one I’m actually walking around in. A world worthy of a novel, where each person is uniquely skilled and essential for the plot. I give them names, and I give them backstories to help explain their characteristics. It’s the inverse of protagonist disease – the belief that you are the main character in life. An overactive imagination means that everyone is the main character of their story, and that narrative is probably more interesting than my own.
The cashier at the supermarket who talks to each customer far too long does so because she’s working towards becoming a touring performing artist for Broadway shows. The thirty-year-old texting on the sidewalk is a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur, but he’s got a really good idea and thinks he can find an investor to get back in the game.
These are the types of stories that I often end up putting into my fiction manuscript – you know, the book I will attempt to publish as soon as I’m 80% happy with what I’ve written. My overactive imagination benefits my character development, like in the case of BCD.
When I was getting my master’s degree, I was walking to class in January. Even though I was in Alabama, it was still fairly cold – around 48℉ (8.8℃). I noticed a girl walking to class in a purple tank top and shorts.
She’s walking towards me, and I’ve always been pretty good with peripheral vision. As she rushes by, I get a closer look, where the truth is revealed. I see small chill bumps all the way up and down her pale arms, concentrated especially near her shoulders. It occurs to me that, because this is a college campus, she’s probably trying to impress somebody. Then, as she passes, I notice a Canadian flag patched onto her grey, heavy duty backpack above her initials, BCD. Or is it BDC? You can never really tell with monograms.
I’m in full force backstory extrapolation mode now, formulating location, motivation, and personality. Wearing a tank top in cold weather is the type of thing people do for social acceptance. Everyone in BCD’s classes knows she’s from Canada. And, because she can’t be any older than a sophomore, she probably makes a big deal about it being “so hot” in the summer. That’s how she got popular and made lots of friends. Then, when the chilly days roll around and the thermometer hovers around freezing, she’s got to keep up the act, or risk losing the relationships she’ll probably shed anyway once she gets out of college and starts a career.
Does developing fictional stories based on relatively mundane occurrences make me weird? Yes, and I freely admit it’s an unorthodox way to develop characterization in fiction. But it also makes life interesting when you develop people’s stories other than your own. It can help you remember names and faces, and it can help you cultivate friendships and business contacts when you remember little details about their lives. Additionally, you’re able to respect individuals more because you’re communicating with them like they are actually interesting people. When someone you don’t know very well snaps at you, it’s easier to contextualize it by saying they probably had a difficult day, even if the reason why it was difficult is fiction. And you can construct similar stories if someone expresses joy and encouragement, which allows you to continue the spirit of optimism throughout the day.
Do you ever people-watch and come up with fascinating stories about their lives? If not, what do you do to find people interesting? Let us know in the comments – and don’t worry, nobody here will judge! Also, do you have anyone in your life who you think is a secret agent?
Finally, I hesitate to do this, but if you ask and tell me a bit about yourself, I will make a story about your life either in the comments or (if I get enough requests) in a follow-up post.