My brother and his wife are visiting me in DC this week. They are from Colorado and have never been out here before, so I’m doing my sisterly duty and visiting all of the monuments and battlegrounds and other things I never see unless guests are in town. Normally during these excursions, I’m too sidetracked to pay much attention to what’s going on or being said around me. This time, however, I decided to do a bit of a social experiment. I started watching people, listening to the brief snippets or their conversations, and imagining their life story.

At the Air and Space museum I saw the boy scout with his his khaki brown top tucked into his blue plaid shorts betting with his friends about who could eat more French fries after chugging a cherry coke. There was the homeless man on the National Mall who threatened to punch his invisible friend in the head. And my favorite of all, the little kids at one of the battlegrounds who wondered why they couldn’t see any bodies.

In the last week, I have imagined some of the richest characters in my life. I can see what they wear, what type of food they eat, and why they keep their chapstick in their left pocket but their money in their right. This exercise has helped me think more about my characters as people, rather than modes of story development. It’s the little unique ticks about a person that makes them real.

I challenge all of you to watch the people around you. Notice the words they overuse. Their hairstyle. Their religion. Now, do this to your characters, and I think you’ll find that they become real as well.

About the author

A. Willburn