Watch the Eyes

This is also posted on the Lyrical Press blog: Watch the Eyes

Where do the best characters come from? Sometimes they wander into Starbucks while you’re sitting in the corner, sucking down powdered bean and typing your first draft. They’re muse, plopped onto your lap like gift baskets from God. They hassle the baristas, complain about the prices, fly into fits when their order isn’t perfect. They come in whistling bad 80’s songs, smelling of expired milk. They wear XXL sweatpants that burst at the seams, with the word “Love” stretched across both butt cheeks. They lay waste to the Free Samples table, draining Dixie cups filled with whipped barbacoa marmalade frap-caps—taking down six before coming up for air. Then they smile at you with their white frap mustaches. And all you can think is “God bless my local Starbucks!”
But maybe you don’t have a Starbucks within walking distance. That’s okay. You will eventually. The good news is you don’t have to leave home. Outside the bewitching green glow of the caffeine limelight, a reservoir of deep characterization awaits you in your living room. My novel Rogue’s Curse (available now!) leans heavily on character quirks. What do I do when Starbucks is closed and I need to add depth to my prince, my rogue or my emaciated enchantress?

I turn on the television.

If you frequent this blog, you’re aware of my frightening dependency on VH1 and shady reality shows—specifically, Cops and To Catch a Predator. Why? Because you won’t find better characters anywhere else. In Cops, it’s the drunk driver, the domestic disturber, the “that’s not mine” guy; in To Catch a Predator, it’s the busted schoolteacher, family man, or creepy guy with bedroom eyes.  When Mr. Police Officer pulls a dude over, or when Chris Hanson emerges from behind the felt curtain, the cameras reveal the actual person within. Whatever bravado or acting skill the criminal has is wiped clean, and what remains is pure instinct. The facial expressions, the immediate responses— the audience sees what words form when a guilty man shuffles off his inner filter. “I found six pounds of leaf in the backseat of your Bonneville,” says Officer Jones. “That’s not mine,” replies the perp. Beautiful.

Watch the perp’s reaction when Officer Jones bends him over the trunk and cuffs him. Note the rapid eye movement as the criminal tries to come up with something better than “It belongs to a friend.” His face contorts; what’s going through his mind? Is he thinking about jail, his family? What made him steal the car, crank up the Skynard, and cruise the camino for chicks? Where did he get that tat, his long hair, his pockmarked cheeks and that sweet, sweet 1981 Chrysler Lebaron?

In To Catch a Predator, the host sets them up with his questions: “Why did you come here today?”and “Did you bring alcohol?” Again, watch the eyes. Try this exercise: TiVo or YouTube a clip of this show. Power up your laptop and open a blank text document.

1) When the host emerges from behind the curtain and says, “How are you?” or “Did you have trouble finding the place?” press pause.

2) Put yourself in Mr. Perv’s shoes. Role-play. You’re pinned down, exposed. Now type your response. This isn’t the person you came to see; he’s much taller. Think fast! You have to answer Chris Hanson while still looking guiltless.  

3) Unpause. Note the dude’s response, calm and nonchalant, betraying just a hint of apprehension. He’s been in this situation before; he’s used to answering tough questions. Take notes as the host strikes up a conversation. Type out your own answers. At the same time, look for some avenue of escape, just keep typing. Don’t stop.

4) When the host says these words, “You’re free to walk out that door,” stop the show.


Now, 5) Put your protagonist(s) into the hot seat. Repeat this exercise with your characters walking into the decoy house or being handcuffed by the cop. How does he/she react? What’s at stake? The hot seat is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is a truck driver from Tucson or a zombie wet nurse; everyone shows a new level of personality when cornered.

Quirks. TV is full of them. You don’t have to sit at Starbucks and wait for them to order a cup of coffee; you just have to ogle the pretty colors on your television screen until your brain softens like a bruised peach.

Happy Writing!