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Mysterious Liaisons: Creating Characters From Life
by Cheryl Wright
Strange things happen when you travel by train.
When I still worked a 'day job' I travelled to and from work by train. On my normal travel time days, I endured the everyday peak time hassles. But when I had to attend breakfast meetings - which were at least once a month, sometimes more - I always encountered the most intriguing of characters.
He had obviously been up all night; his face was unshaven and his clothes rumpled. More often than not, he would lay stretched out across two or three seats, catching up on missed sleep. His eyes were red and bleary with exhaustion, and his bow tie lay loose around his neck.
As I sat reading my book, outwardly engrossed, I couldn't resist glancing up from time to time trying to fathom this 'regular' on the early morning train.
Many a time I endeavoured to bring this absorbing character to life. Was he a waiter or doorman? Perhaps he worked in a motel and involved with room service, or maybe some other hospitality-type service. As I worked my way through the occupations he might boast, I also pondered on his life as a criminal.
I imagined the scruffy looking gent as a cat burglar, a gem thief and even a conman. His suit was the puzzling part - immaculate except for its wrinkled state, I was sure he had to be involved in something more sinister. His dirty shoes were quite mesmerizing as well.
The breakfast meetings continued for around three years, and you guessed it, my mysterious gent was nearly always there. I still wonder about him, and have used him as a basic template for some of the characters I have created. In particular he was the model for an undercover cop character I used in one of my novels.
So what was it that caught my eye? Many elements of characterisation were involved with this stranger on the train:
* The unknown; where did he work, what did he do for a job, where did he live, was he married, did he have children, and why was he travelling from the outer suburbs into the central business district? (And not the other way around)
* His appearance; unshaven after just one night (or so I believed), bleary eyed - why was he so tired and wanting to sleep, why was his suit so wrinkled, did his shoes start out clean or did they become grimy at work?
* His personality; seemingly quiet - although he mostly slept, tossing and turning as though something bothered him - curled in a ball at times, always looking toward the floor when he was awake.
* Nationality; undetermined, possibly Italian or Greek, maybe part Australian - olive skin with very black hair, dark stubble on his face at six-thirty or seven in the morning.
* Motivation; now there's the thing - I could make it whatever appealed. Inspiration flashed through my mind each time I saw him; different ideas on every occasion:
a) He was on the run from the law; murdered his wife and family and was taking a never-ending train journey
b) He was a jewel thief hiding out
c) An actor after a long night on stage, then the celebratory party
d) A writer researching a character
e) A professor at the local university (but why the bow tie?)
f) Maitre d' at a posh hotel
g) An undercover cop or private investigator
Many questions remained unanswered, and always will. I never did get the courage to walk right up and ask him, but often pondered doing so. Still, I do believe I acted correctly - after all, if I had found out the truth about this mysterious, remarkable character, I would not have been blessed with the inspiration I've been lucky enough to acquire from my muse. (And maybe, just maybe, a gun might have appeared from thin air? Oh, sorry - that was also in my imagination!)
© Copyright Cheryl Wright. All rights reserved
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