Friday, July 10, 2009

A visit to The Character Place

During the heat of the summer and the cold of winter, my wife and I try to walk daily at RiverGate Mall, not far from our home in Madison, TN. With all the store closings, they’ve apparently cut back on their air conditioning. It isn’t as cool as it used to be, but it’s sure better than walking out on the street.

While doing my two miles today, I spent my time observing the conglomeration of humanity that strolled or stood chatting about the mall. I found no shortage in the variety—little kids, old folks, tall, short, skinny, fat, stringy hair, no hair, black, white, brown, foreign and domestic. I decided a writer could spend a little time in the mall and find any kind of character he or she would like to depict in a novel.

There was the husky guy with arms like a wrestler, short hair that resembled indoor-outdoor carpet, and a grin belonging to the cat that ate the canary. He looked made to order for an accessory to mayhem.

One thing I’ve noticed in recent times (guys notice these things) is the proliferation of babes baring boobs. Besides deepening necklines that show miles of cleavage, there seems to be a contest for who can lower the tops closest to the half-moon position. You hesitate to stare, but isn’t that what it’s there for? One I saw today had the plunging neckline, shorts nearly short enough to qualify as a bikini, and fur-lined boots. She could as easily have been out on the corner looking for johns.

More interesting are the little old ladies. I watched one stroll along with a sparkling smile beneath snow-white hair. She wore a dark blue dress trimmed in white and carried a handbag I wagered could do as much damage as a brickbat. She moved with an easy grace and would have found a home in some crafty cozy.

The younger kids are fun to watch, particularly girls just entering their teens. Dressed in short shorts, they appear all legs. They giggle a lot and talk fast and give the impression of being more than a little self-conscious. They tend to cover their mouths when divulging a confidence and cut their eyes sharply when a cool guy passes.

Old guys seem to enjoy sitting more than walking. I suspect they’re sitting there worrying about how much the wife is putting on the credit card. Now and then you’ll see one with his eyes closed, chin resting on his chest. Some of them gather in areas with a cluster of chairs and give the impression of telling war stories. You know that’s the case when one of them has USS Whatever in white letters on his black ball cap.

One thing you notice quickly in visiting The Character Place is the confirmation of all the stories you read about and see on TV regarding the beefing up of America. Obesity is live and well. The mall is full of heavyweights. I don’t know if mystery writers are afraid of ticking off their readers, but I don’t recall reading much about overweight characters. If reality is the goal, half of our characters should be on the hefty side. My Greg McKenzie protagonist is calorie-challenged, but he’s not in the seriously overweight category. I only recall one character, and she was in my first book, who was definitely fat. Greg described her this way:

“May was one of those in the office who thought I’d gotten a raw deal. She was a bit rotund, all right, not a girl you’d likely invite to the senior prom. But I had learned a long time ago that treating people with respect, regardless of who they were or how they looked, usually paid dividends.”

Do you have a Character Place where you check out your fellow human beings?


jrlindermuth said...

Good suggestion for writers who haven't used the mall as a character source. We old reporters tend to be people-watchers, no matter where we go. A grocery store, ballgame or any place crowds convene is equally good.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I'd say my Character Place is our local Single-A ball park. You'll find all sorts of interesting people at a ball game.

And my post yesterday included an article in Time on why southerners are so fat, so your comment on overweight people is timely!

L. Diane Wolfe

Chester Campbell said...

True, you can find 'em anywhere. It's just that the mall is packed with a grand assortment.

I'll have to check out your post, Diane.

Anonymous said...

My "character place" is the zoo. Usually I'm there for the animals, but often the people and their kids prove to be the most memorable characters.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I like shopping centers for people watching, too. Though I don't fly as much as I once did, I also think airports are excellent places for this activity.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I like shopping centers for people watching, too. Though I don't fly as much as I once did, I also think airports are excellent places for this activity.

Marvin D Wilson said...

The Mall is a great place. But for me it's anywhere and everywhere. I am ALWAYS observing people and storing stuff in my head for potential characters and/or attributes of characters. Writers must be observers, and good ones.

The Old Silly