I swear that at heart I’m shy and antisocial and can tolerate only select people in short doses. Yet in much the same way that a cat makes a beeline for the one person in a crowd who is violently allergic, I am afflicted by total strangers desiring to talk to me. I feel like a bartender without a bar.
Despite my best attempts to project Cool Indifferent Aloofness to Others, total strangers often initiate chats with me at bus stops, in stores, at parks, pretty much any and everywhere. I’m not talking about those short, meaningless interactions where folks comment on the weather, the lateness of the bus, or the rising gas prices. Yes, those happen. But more often than seems reasonably probable, people start telling me all about their lives. Seriously. It happened again a few days ago, when a technician came to repair my internet service at home.
By the end of the 30-minute service call, during which he also repaired the connection, thank goodness, I learned that this fellow had served in the military spying out submarines ala “Hunt for Red October”, had lived in Japan for 20 years (and I learned a whole lot about his views of their culture vs American culture), had married a Japanese woman, had two grown kids, was going through a divorce because she left him for another woman (see what I mean? Bartender talk!), that he loved animals and had three dogs and a pet snake, and that he considered himself a pagan.
Whew. And I’m telling you, this is not an unusual occurrence for me. I used to consider it highly annoying (see above re: “shy” and “antisocial”), but now I realize how incredibly useful it is for writing fiction. You can struggle for days trying to create an intriguing character or plot point out of whole cloth – or, you can think, “Hm. Maybe my protagonist is a snake-loving divorced pagan who spots an enemy sub where it ought not to be.” Though on the other hand, I’m not sure how believable such an outlandish character would be, no matter how much he was based on the truth.
All in all, it’s probably a fine thing that people insist on speaking to me against my will. Writers should cultivate the fine art of talking to strangers. You can pick up nuances of speech patterns, physical habits, opinions, et cetera that you might not normally encounter if you only stick to people you know. And those nuances can make your characters more colorful.
So don’t stick to the folks you know for inspiration. Go out and talk to strangers – or if you’re as incredibly affable-looking as I apparently am, let them come to you!