I’m a dedicated, unapologetic people watcher and eavesdropper, because real people are a mine of fictional inspiration.
One of my male acquaintances has taken to always wearing a hat. I haven’t seen the top of his head in years. Is he bald and vain? Would one of my characters be more memorable if he was bald and vain too?
A woman who lives on my street walks her dog three times a day. She waves to every car that passes in the manner of a toddler Mommy has told, “Wave bye-bye to Grandma.” The gesture seems telling about her personality.
Real people in real situations are often stranger than fictional characters. Some are so strange that if they could be transplanted into a novel in their entirety readers might consider them unbelievable. But odd personality quirks or interesting body language can be effectively used by writers who want to make characters multi-dimensional. The hairstyles, mode of dress, and manner of speaking of customers or employees strolling the aisles of Walmart or arguing at the next table in a restaurant can spark ideas for outrageous or fascinating characters.
Even people we don’t meet in person can be fodder for fiction. Fascinating people can be found on TV and in the newspaper. Some we might find interesting because of their wonderful deeds, quick wit, or engaging smile. Others are amusing. We want the villain in the novel to be a worthy adversary for our hero. In reality, many crooks act stupidly and their mistakes leave us shaking ours heads in wonder. A dumb crook can be a great comic relief character.
Fiction writers often find inspiration for characters in the people around them. We just don’t make the people in our books recognizable. A wise writer will use false names and disguise the person used as a blueprint for a character, especially if the resulting character will play an unsavory role.
Mystery and suspense writers often wear T-shirts with sayings like: Be nice to me or you could be murdered in my next book. Beware, we’re watching, and we are not always joking.