Let’s Talk Characters
By Jeff Salter
As writers, sometimes we’ll see a person or hear a conversation which triggers an entire scene in our manuscript.
Join me in this real-life grocery experience and see if you would have been able to resist writing it down.
Selected the slow line, as usual. The transacting party bought 31 cans of baby formula … had to send someone ‘to the back’ to get a case. In the meantime, the young clerk waved one can by the scanner 31 times.
The woman in front of me was very obviously irritated. [I’d seen her in the cheese section earlier … and she was equally annoyed with dairy products.] Her phone rang twice while we waited and she was rather terse with both callers. The terse woman had a medium sized cucumber among many other items. I noticed only because it had no sticker and ‘our’ clerk had to ask a colleague for the cucumber code.
The other cans of formula finally arrived; the terse woman with the cucumber checked out and departed in a brisk huff.
Finally, my turn. I was about to swipe my credit card when I noticed that my bananas rang up at $5.51. I thought that was awfully pricy for five medium-sized bananas — over a dollar apiece! [I’m rather proud I’ve retained my grade school arithmetic skills.] I asked, ‘Why are the bananas so high today?’
The clerk just shrugged. Then I examined the screen more closely and noted my five bananas weighed 11.01 pounds! I said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s over two pounds per banana. Would you weigh them again?’ [Notice my adroit math skills?]
She looked bored and bothered at the same time. The lady behind me – with tattoos all over – just rolled her eyes at the additional delay. [She’d also been present for the problems with formula cans and cucumber codes.] By now there were two more customers behind the tattoo lady.
Not in a single bunch, my bananas were a clutch of three and a brace of two. The clerk weighed all five again. This time they totaled 11.21 pounds! Observing the painfully obvious, I said, ‘Something’s wrong with this scale. Weigh that bag of sugar [from the tattoo lady’s items] and compare the actual weight with what the scale says.’
The clerk picked up the sugar, noted it was exactly four pounds, but refused to place it on the scale. She was willing to weigh my clutch of three bananas, however. She even pulled her hands way back, as though establishing her thumb was not on the scale. But those three weighed slightly more than all five bananas had weighed just moments earlier!
I saw agony in the faces of all three customers behind me. So I shrugged my shoulders — the universal sign for ‘it’s out of my hands.’
Finally the clerk called for back-up. Called again. Again. Yet again. Finally, a manager arrived. The clerk explained only that she couldn’t ‘clear’ her scale — momentarily ignoring the ‘weightier’ problem: my five bananas totaled over 11 pounds!
It took the manager only a few seconds to assess the malfunction: the metal console (including the clerk’s keypad) had slid down its spindle and now squatted ON the scale! It evidently totaled about nine pounds, so everything which had been weighed at that station – since whenever the set-screw backed out sufficiently – rang up about nine pounds heavier than it really was.
The manager lifted the console, re-tightened its set-screw, then helped ‘clear’ the scale. They re-weighed my five bananas, which came in at a trim total of 2.08 pounds ($1.04 total cost). I thanked the manager. The clerk apologized several times … and I was as gracious as you’d be if you’d imagined the whole episode might be on Candid Camera.
I thought about apologizing to the tattoo woman and the folks behind her. But I rationalized that they should be thanking ME (if they had any produce to weigh). Plus, I had already given them the ‘shrug’.
I swiped my card and took my items … quite satisfied that my skills in ‘old math’ had once again saved the day. As I exited the store, I realized someone should warn the terse woman that the scale had been compromised … so I looked for her in the parking lot. However, the impatient female and her cucumber … were both long gone.
Later, I wondered what her husband would say if he saw the receipt … and I pictured him asking, “Hon, why did you buy a 12-pound cucumber?”
No doubt, her reply would be terse.
I think you’ll agree that vivid characters and interesting plot details are keys to getting readers ‘invested’ in our scenes.
How have your real life experiences helped you create characters? Please let us know!
A version of my account appeared on the Chick Lit Writers Blog on Jan. 10, 1011:
A longer rendition of this same episode appeared in a magazine section of the CommonWealth Journal during 2007.