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April 12, 2011

Character building

It is said that you go to East Africa for the animals and to West Africa for the people. Well, my recent trip to Tanzania did not support that premise at all. Yes, the safari was wonderful, the views on the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro were breathtaking and the close encounters with animals were exciting. But as a writer, I was most intrigued and impacted by the characters that we encountered along the way.

For example, we met Mohammed, a dead ringer for Morgan Freeman, who guided us carefully through the streets of Zanzibar, warning us vociferously against visiting any place that he considered potentially corrupt (often because they sold cigarettes or alcohol).

Then there was a lady whose name I did not get but who spoke with equal and effervescent excitement about every topic from the weather to the fun we would have on our upcoming safari.

And the so-pleasant but comically incompetent waitress who managed to do everything wrong as she served us our dinner at one of the lodges on the Serengeti.

When I meet these people, I create a background for them, why are they where they are, why do they act the way they do, what life experiences have molded them. Perhaps the manager has been trying to fire this waitress for months, but she charms him so sweetly whenever he calls her to be sanctioned that he cannot bring himself to fire her.

It would have been easy for me to sit here at my computer and research the locations that we visited. I may even have been able to conjure up the emotions I experienced when I saw them in person. But to recreate these characters realistically, requires a much more practical approach.

How do you create your most realistic characters? Are they complete figments of your imagination or were they triggered by someone that crossed your path?

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