Poppies, Pimps, and Everything In-between

Thinking about writing and travel, and somewhat bored with the biography I’ve been reading, I pulled out my copy of The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux (1975).  At the time, he was young, intrepid, and wickedly humorous: a talented writer with the ability to observe closely and recount with precision.
As I traveled abroad, Theroux’s travel books and anecdotes often came to mind. I fell into the habit of using an expression he’d coined, “duffilled.” I would urge my travel companion, “Come on. Hurry. We don’t want to be duffilled.”
It was a reference to a pathetic man named Duffill who, at a train stop in Domodossola, Italy, failed to get back on the train and was left standing on the platform as the train sped away with his belongings.
In the same book (Railway Bazaar) Theroux has a conversation with a pimp that’s stayed  in my memory long after the book yellowed on the shelf. In Chapter 7, The Khyber Mail to Lahore Junction, Theroux is only looking for a drink, but a street pimp tries to interest him in a prostitute. The pimp, with limited English, is attempting to describe how “good” the service will be. Theroux responds in kind, wishing the pimp the same “good” experience, much in the spirit of “Good morning to you, too.”  That humor, mixed with gritty reality, made the scene come alive. Whether political or playful, Theroux’s travel writing is always engaging.
It’s occurred to me that if we could observe and relate human behavior as accurately in our fiction as many of the travel writers do in their accounts, we would be ahead of the game.
It’s not easy to develop a fictional character that resonates with a large percentage of readers, but when it does happen we have a Scout, a Harry Potter, a Miss Daisy, or the vampire, Lestat. Even harder, perhaps, is give our characters traits that lead to original, interesting dialogue. If we invent a compelling character, we need to make that character authentic for our readers.
I admit it would be difficult to conjure a character like the one Theroux met–a Thai who called himself Pensacola–not to mention inventing a story like the one the Thai told (a tale of holding off a gang of smugglers in an opium poppy field). It’s a tall order, but suppose we think like a travel writer who is meeting intriguing people: what are the physical, psychological, and situational characteristics that make them worthy of being noted and, eventually, included in the traveler’s journal, essay, or book?
Imagine that you are on a public conveyance and seated next to the character you’ve invented for your work of fiction. What are your first impressions? Heavy cologne? A mustache trimmed with military precision? A heavy sweater when the temperature outside is pushing triple digits? Now look closer. Crooked teeth or a toothpaste ad smile? Shiny hair or greasy locks? Open-collared shirt or chokingly tight necktie? Stilettos or trainers with Velcro fasteners?
Start a conversation with your character. What conversational traits do you notice? A slight lisp? Clipped enunciation? Peppered with four letter words? Are they loquacious? Reserved? Secretive?
Objectivity, close observation, and attention to speech patterns and gestures–trademarks of good travel writing–enable us to create original, memorable characters. Travel books are inspiring-give one a shot the next time you create a character.

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