The gym where I work out is only slightly larger than a corner pharmacy. But the modern facility with state-of-the-art equipment, located a short drive from our house is my daily, early-morning haunt. The cardio stage faces the weight training area, so when I'm not conjuring new character ideas during treadmill workouts, I am people watching. As you can imagine, those two pastimes often overlap.
Typically, the same crowd of early risers shows up Monday through Friday between 7:00 and 8:30 a.m. Among the regulars, there's the muscular girl whose shapely legs I covet. There's the man I silently cheer on ever since he told me he's already shed 150 of the 225 pounds he needs to lose to achieve his goal weight. And there's The Grunter, who dresses like he's in gym class, circa 1955, and who loudly clears his throat on average once every thirty seconds. Recently, though, an unfamiliar pair of members arrived on our scene. They showed up wearing the trademark bright, factory-fresh sneakers of motivated gym newbies. I haven't been able to keep my eyes off them since.
Every day they arrive together and leave together, but while they are in the gym they work alone. Both appear to be in their fifties, and I assume they are a couple. They know their way around the equipment. Unlike timid newbies who steer clear of the complicated-looking apparatuses, their workouts entail far more than random sets on unrelated Nautilus machines. Instead, they target specific opposing-muscle groups -- like back and biceps, or chest and triceps. And they maintain good form while executing precise movements, thus avoiding the injury traps that more inexperienced members easily fall into.
They rarely speak to each other, and I've neither seen them partner up nor spot one another. There's no air of anger or distain between them, though. They simply move around like people who are used to sharing the same space and are comfortable in their own silence. Every once in a while a quick smile passes between them.
By now, you may have formed an image of these people in your mind. Close your eyes and take a moment to gaze upon them. What do they look like, to you? Earlier, I said I can't keep my eyes off them. Here's why:
The man is scarecrow-skinny and easily over six feet tall. His wiry gray hair spills over his shoulders like a scraggly shawl, and his gaunt cheeks are covered by a dishwater gray beard that's so long its wispy ends reach south of his solar plexus. Though there is something graceful about his movements, he walks with the hunched gait of a man accustomed to manual labor. He wears the same ratty baseball cap every day.
The woman is of medium height, though when walking next to the man she's dwarfed by his stature. Like him, she is very thin. She wears boxy t-shirts that hang on her frame and tend to draw my eyes to her pronounced elbows and knobby knees. She pulls her graying brown hair away from a weathered and make-up-free face, cinching it in a stubby ponytail at the base of her neck. Her mouth and chin are sunken in, as if her teeth were missing. A wristwatch or a pair of earrings would look conspicuously out-of-place on her.
In short, they don't look at all like "gym people," which is why I find them so fascinating to watch. When they're working out, I don't even notice the muscular girl, the shrinking man or The Grunter. And that got my writer's brain thinking.
As characters, all five gym members are unique - meaning they are each physically different from the others, and each must have interesting stories to tell. When all five share the same setting, they move around the space with equal aptitude and facility. But it's their visual paradoxes that make the new couple the center of my attention. They are the splashes of red on an all-blue canvas. They are interesting.
A fictional character that is multi-dimensional or quirky captures our imaginations. Discovering and exploring a character's contradictions, illogicalities, and ironies bring depth and drama to any story. Inspiration for these characters is all around us, and looking for it is almost as enjoyable as crafting the characters and their stories.
And it sure makes the time on a treadmill fly by!
[I originally published this article today at Writing.com. Read it HERE. And to enjoy other regular newsletters and a slew of tools for writers, sign up HERE. Membership is free!]
I'm a short story author, aspiring novelist, and world traveler who has penned fiction from homes on three different continents. I currently live with my husband and two children in the Atlanta area. When I find myself less inspired by my Southern locale, I have only to rifle through memories of adventures abroad until colorful characters or thrilling plots come forth. And on the rare occasion that none arise...I've been known to finagle a flight out.