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A Pocket Archive (27)

The keys clicked erratically beneath my fingers as they flew across the keyboard. It was a satisfying sound that blended seamlessly into the chatter of the small, dimly lit cafe with its warm, flickering rainbow lanterns and mismatched sofas. As I typed, the sound of New Order’s ‘Crystal' trilled into my temples and I was once again grateful that I’d invested in a pair of Shokz.

This particular hole-in-the-wall cafe had the best lattes in the city, but I didn’t come here for the coffee. I’m something of a cafe lurker, which means while I do come to write and be productive, I’m mostly paying for the atmosphere and the chance to engage in my second-favorite public space hobby: eavesdropping.

One thing that Starbucks and other major coffee franchises will never be able to replicate is the strange, liminal quality of eclectic, independent coffee shops like this one with its cozy, cramped little nooks and near-windowless walls that are plastered with several local artists’ work for sale. I noticed a few of them were missing this time. The selection rotates fairly frequently and I still had the card that the owner had given me in my pocket, soft and rumpled from the rain. I had yet to call him back, but I would often glance up from my laptop between paragraphs to study the empty spaces, wondering how the small, brightly colored landscapes that I still had in my apartment would look against the butter-colored paint. Overall this place had a strange, dreamlike quality that made it feel like a special bubble exempt from time and an in-between kind of space. It also gave me the same feeling I imagine Harry Potter experienced upon first seeing Diagon Alley: magical and full of color despite seeming pedestrian and mundane to the other regulars.

Whatever strange magic coffee shops have, it seems to put people at ease in a way that other public places don’t so that they relax and talk openly about all sorts of things, indifferent to whether or not other patrons can overhear them. I enjoy catching snippets, not so much out of deliberate nosiness or the desire to invade other customers’ privacy, but because I like people and I enjoy experiencing sonder. Sometimes it helps to know other peoples’ lives are just as complicated as my own, and I like listening to candid conversations about everyday things. I also love hearing a variety of speech patterns and the cadence of various voices drifting through the shop, mingling with the delicious aromas of coffee beans, cinnamon and vanilla. Sometimes I visualize characters in my head to match the different colors and textures of the voices around me, then transpose them into various imaginary scenes. I find it also helps with me writing more natural-sounding dialog, even though half the time I find I’m not listening to the conversations themselves so much as the tenor and intonation of their participants, and imagining how dialogue helps define and flesh out a given character’s quirks and personality.

I often joke with my friends that if ghosts are real, I can’t wait to be one because I enjoy people watching so much. While I consider myself to be friendly and fairly sociable, I’ve never really liked attention and I prefer to be ignored whenever possible. Being invisible sounds like the perfect existence, especially given that in most circumstances I’d much rather be listening to conversations rather than participating. The truth is, I just like stories and hearing the world described from different perspectives. Coffee shops are one of very few places that allow me to sit and quietly be a fly on the wall as a still-corporeal being.

Candor is becoming increasingly difficult to find, but it’s key to creating believable characters, which also seem to be increasingly rare in literature. Part of me wonders how much of this is due to film, and if movies have changed the way writers depict their MCs, but if I could single out one pet peeve that bothers me, it usually comes down to dialog, internal or otherwise. It can’t just be clever one-liners and quips, nor can it be too stiff and scripted. Characters have to sound alive. Moreover, their development and portrayal is incredibly important to me as a both as a writer and a reader, because the cast is what makes or breaks a story. Plots can be fairly simple if the characters are good, but if a story has boring or poorly-written characters, it can fall completely flat, even if it has a strong, well-crafted plot. If Fayre, Katniss, or Bella Swan had personalities beyond swooning and/or inexplicable badassery, for example, I’d probably be a much bigger fan of their stories and would stop cringing so much at Booktok.

While I think I can craft reasonably likable or “good” protagonists and anti-heroes at this point, I’m finding the area I struggle with most is villains. I just can’t make them likable or adequate adversaries for their counterparts. Partly this is due to real-life experiences and having to reframe the way I view evil; I could easily write a villain that’s realistic, but the ones in my life all lack the qualities that make for compelling characters. For example, in order for a villain to be a “good” antagonist or worthy opponent, they have to be intelligent, attractive, or compelling in some significant way, as well as being someone who can be empathized with. Ideally, they also have to have a point or want something that we do, too. Some of the best villains that come to mind are characters like the Joker, Loki, or Gollum from LOTR. Even Satan is more of a likeable anti-hero in most stories, especially the way he’s portrayed in Paradise Lost or Lucifer. The only problem with the villain I know is that while they’re very real, very dangerous, and very evil, they don’t check those boxes, and honestly, they just aren’t interesting enough to be worth writing about (beyond me sharing my story, of course, but that’s a completely different genre). No one cares about someone who does things just because they’re crazy and or because<MUAHAHAHA> they’re evil. Real life might work that way, but a book can’t, or your editor will throw your manuscript back at you and make you re-write the entire thing. There has to be something interesting to drive the plot forward beyond random psychos causing chaos or hurting people just for the sake of doing so. There are more than enough people like that in the world, but if I were to write a character based solely off firsthand experience, they’d get likely get tossed out for being too boring and 2-dimensional.

Hopefully I’ll get something figured out, and I can make my antagonists just as compelling as my protagonists without making them too likable in the process. There has to be a good balance for successful narratives and I want to create the kind of villain that people love to hate, not the sort that Booktok girls swoon over or that makes a reader yawn and not finish a book. All I can do is try.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of cafes to haunt, and I’ll continue enjoying the little bits and pieces of other peoples lives that get caught between the clink of coffee cups, soft indie music, and the ever-present smell of freshly roasted beans and warm cappuccino.


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