Did you ever play that game of inventing stories or backgrounds for strangers? You know, you see someone sitting alone in a restaurant and you imagine who they are, what they’re planning to do as soon as they finish this meal, why they are alone, what’s in that big tote bag on the floor at their feet. I used to try to guess where my fellow bus passengers were going and why. Were they going to somewhere and someone, or running away from something? Did that girl with her hands jammed deep into her pockets lose her gloves or did she give them to some homeless person? Was she herself too poor to buy gloves when the cold February winds kept the temperatures around zero? Was that nervous looking young man on his way to a new job, to his mother’s funeral, or to his own wedding?
Those flights of fancy, which I took mostly to entertain myself during those long bus rides, were possibly the beginnings of my compulsion to write fiction. It seems that the obvious facts were never enough for me. I wanted to fill in the gaps and know all about each character. It was especially difficult for me to stick to the facts when it came to history. History books are notorious for concentrating on the highlights and skipping over the everyday details. Consequently, those important historical figures never seemed real to me– they were just dry statistics to be memorized for the tests, and they bored me silly.
I find myself ascribing different roles to some of the public figures I see, especially those people who appear often on television or in movies. To my mind, some of them just don’t look like who they are. They should be someone entirely different. Take newsman David Muir, for instance. I’m not sure just what it is about his appearance, but I have trouble taking him seriously as a newscaster. He looks just like some romantic hero from a Victorian novel. I can easily imagine him on horseback, dashing off to avenge some fair lady’s besmirched honor.
A couple other news anchors don’t seem to fit, either. Diane Sawyer, with her smooth beauty and cool poise should definitely be the queen of some long-running soap opera. And then there’s Channel 9’s Bruce Aune who ought to be a junior high history teacher and girl’s basketball coach. Speaking of coaches; I would never characterize Dan Gable as a wrestler. He should have been teaching Medieval literature in some small but prestigious eastern college all this time. (I imagine he’d be quite pleased to know how wrong I am!)
Certain performers always surprise me that they do what they do– you’d never guess it, from just looking at them. If you watch the old Guy Lombardo shows on IPTV, you’ve no doubt seen and heard singer Bill Flanagan a great many times. I’m always astonished that he sings so well, considering he looks like a young used car salesman on his first day on the job. And Bing Crosby really did look more like a priest (a role he was cast in more than once) than he looked like a romantic crooner. But then, Frank Sinatra, in his young days, didn’t look at all like he sounded. I used to listen to him with my eyes closed because I couldn’t imagine that scrawny-looking high school nerd having a voice like that. He should have been the loner who spent his time drawing cartoons of imaginary race cars and space vehicles.
I don’t mean to be unkind, and I certainly admire those guys for what they did as their real selves, but we’re talking typecasting here. And speaking of typecasting, Hollywood and the TV studios didn’t always get it right. I guess Clark Gable seemed like the perfect romantic leading man in his time, but he looked too much like my dad, especially in later years, and I tend to think of him as the worried father of four daughters.
And then there’s Ed Asner, who didn’t especially resemble my high school sweetie-pie as a young man– but as we all get older, I’ve noticed a striking resemblance to him.
Then there are all the ordinary people in my life– my friends and relatives, doctors, sales clerks, pharmacists, waitresses, carpenters and mechanics, people on the street. These are people that only I can visualize for the purposes of this column because you don’t know them. They are the ones who end up in my stories. When writing fiction, I have a strong need to know what my characters look like, and I often borrow those images from real people. Who knows– maybe even you have been turned into someone else in one of my mysteries or romances. Perhaps you should consider yourself lucky that you can’t tell a book by its cover.