What a Character!

~ By Jeff Salter

Let’s talk characters.

As writers, sometimes we’ll see a person or hear a conversation which triggers an entire scene in our manuscript.

Join me in this Grocery experience and see if you can determine which character(s) – and corresponding actions/dialog – are actual … and which part of my account is fiction.


Selected the slow line, as usual.  The transacting party bought 31 cans of baby formula … had to send someone ‘to the back’ to get a case.  In the meantime, the young clerk waved one can by the scanner 31 times.

The woman in front of me was very obviously irritated.  [I’d seen her in the cheese section earlier … and she was equally annoyed with dairy products.]  Her phone rang twice while we waited and she was rather terse with both callers.  The terse woman had a medium sized cucumber among many other items.  I noticed only because it had no sticker and ‘our’ clerk had to ask a colleague for the cucumber code.

The other cans of formula finally arrived; the terse woman with the cucumber checked out and departed in a brisk huff.

Finally, my turn.  I was about to swipe my credit card when I noticed that my bananas rang up at $5.51.  I thought that was awfully pricy for five medium-sized bananas — over a dollar apiece!  [I’m rather proud I’ve retained my grade school arithmetic skills.] I asked, ‘Why are the bananas so high today?’

The clerk just shrugged.  Then I examined the screen more closely and noted my five bananas weighed 11.01 pounds!  I said, ‘Wait a minute.  That’s over two pounds per banana.  Would you weigh them again?’  [Notice my adroit math skills?]

She looked bored and bothered at the same time.  The lady behind me – with tattoos all over – just rolled her eyes at the additional delay.  [She’d also been present for the problems with formula cans and cucumber codes.]  By now there were two more customers behind the tattoo lady.

Not in a single bunch, my bananas were a clutch of three and a brace of two.  The clerk weighed all five again.  This time they totaled 11.21 pounds!  Observing the painfully obvious, I said, ‘Something’s wrong with this scale.  Weigh that bag of sugar [from the tattoo lady’s items] and compare the actual weight with what the scale says.’

The clerk picked up the sugar, noted it was exactly four pounds, but refused to place it on the scale.  She was willing to weigh my clutch of three bananas, however.  She even pulled her hands way back, as though establishing her thumb was not on the scale.  But those three weighed slightly more than all five bananas had weighed just moments earlier!

I saw agony in the faces of all three customers behind me.  So I shrugged my shoulders — the universal sign for ‘it’s out of my hands.’

Finally the clerk called for back-up.  Called again.  Again.  Yet again.  Finally, a manager arrived.  The clerk explained only that she couldn’t ‘clear’ her scale — momentarily ignoring the ‘weightier’ problem:  my five bananas totaled over 11 pounds!

It took the manager only a few seconds to assess the malfunction:  the metal console (including the clerk’s keypad) had slid down its spindle and now squatted ON the scale!  It evidently totaled about nine pounds, so everything which had been weighed at that station – since whenever the set-screw backed out sufficiently – rang up about nine pounds heavier than it really was.

The manager lifted the console, re-tightened its set-screw, then helped ‘clear’ the scale.  They re-weighed my five bananas, which came in at a trim total of 2.08 pounds ($1.04 total cost).  I thanked the manager.  The clerk apologized several times … and I was as gracious as you’d be if you’d imagined the whole episode might be on Candid Camera.

I thought about apologizing to the tattoo woman and the folks behind her.  But I rationalized that they should be thanking ME (if they had any produce to weigh).  Plus, I had already given them the ‘shrug’.

I swiped my card and took my items … quite satisfied that my skills in ‘old math’ had once again saved the day.  As I exited the store, I realized someone should warn the terse woman that the scale had been compromised … so I looked for her in the parking lot.  However, the impatient female and her cucumber … were both long gone.

Later, I wondered what her husband would say if he saw the receipt … and I pictured him asking, “Hon, why did you buy a 12-pound cucumber?”

No doubt, her reply would be terse.


I think you’ll agree that vivid characters and interesting plot details are keys to getting readers ‘invested’ in our scenes.

Okay:  so which character(s) – and their corresponding actions/dialog – are actual?  And which part of my account is fiction?

Leave your guesses in the comments! The answers will be posted tomorrow.

How have your real life experiences helped you create characters? Please let us know!

Jeff Salter has completed six novel manuscripts, three of which he considers chick lit.  He also co-authored two non-fiction books with a royalty publisher, in addition to an encyclopedia article and a signed chapter. Jeff has also published articles, book reviews, and over 120 poems. His writing has won nearly 40 awards, including several in national contests. He’s a retired librarian, a decorated Air Force veteran, and a published photo journalist. He’s married with two children and five grandchildren.

34 thoughts on “What a Character!”

  1. Hey Mr. Jeff! Wow, it’s been a long time. I was stunned to come across you while cruising the ‘net. It’s nice to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. I’m still in Bossier. Drop me a line when you can. TIM GORDON

  2. Laurie. Oh no, she barely said a word the entire time. Just frowned. Until the manager cleared the scale and she realized she was ‘caught’ being wrong.
    But, as I said, I let her off the hook.
    As I reflected later, I wondered if she was fairly new … maybe brand new. Waving the formula can 31 times isn’t something you’d do if you’d been clerking a while.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. One final word on my accurate account of this true-life experience.
    As an interesting exercise in POV, try to picture how the tale would un-fold if revealed by:
    the terse woman
    the tattoo lady behind me
    the bagger (who I omitted from the story)
    … the grocery clerk (herself) who had inadvertantly overcharged everybody with produce for possibly her entire shift. [I mean — talk about not paying attention! everything you weigh is about 9 pounds over and you don’t even notice until an alert customer points it out? Good grief!]

  4. Before I depart my account of this true-life experience, let me use my deletions as a very short exercise in how EDITING can improve a story. Below are the true components which I OMITTED in order to streamline my narrative and reduce confusion:
    * the ‘party’ waiting on the 31 cans of formula was actually two people. [At the time I had the impression they were buying it for a facility – like a daycare, perhaps – rather than a home.]
    * the role of the bagger, who faced the impatient line of customers the entire time. [She tried unsuccessfully to help clear the scale and urged the follow-up calls to the manager.]
    * the manager was a woman [I didn’t realize there was any doubt about that until I saw a commenter use the male pronoun for that manager.]
    * the reason I knew the terse woman was ‘upset’ in the dairy section was because of an earlier phone call she took while she was examining the cheese … which obviously had her ‘primed’ to be even more terse in the check-out line. [Receiving three phone calls while I’m trying to make a quick grocery run might flip me over the edge also.]
    * the terse woman ALSO had a visible tattoo (on her right shoulder). [But to have mentioned HER tattoo might have made the identities a bit hazy.]
    * I’d also had to wait in line at the pharmacy (both to drop off my Rx and later to pick it up).

  5. Okay, full disclosure:
    This event occurred at the Albertson’s in Bossier City, LA on May 11, 2006.
    I wrote down the details immediately on getting home that day. Interestingly, I did NOT note any of the dialog of any of the individuals — most of my attention was focused on their actions and apparent attitudes. My input about that woman’s ‘terseness’ evidently came mostly from her body language, though it’s possible I overheard bits and pieces of her conversation.
    SUMMARY: [except for the omissions noted above] everything in my account happened, exactly as described, with those actual individuals. I even DID really look for the terse woman in the parking lot (before I picked up my Rx), but didn’t see her.
    As I noted when I first wrote this account (nearly five years ago): I’m not clever enough to ‘make up’ a scene as compelling as this. Truth is often stranger than fiction.

    CONFESSION: I had to guess at the weight of the terse woman’s cucumber and then add approximately nine pounds (which is how much it over-weighed my bananas).

  6. Melissa,
    First: thanks for setting up and managing this blog … and for giving me the opportunity to ‘guest’ here.
    Yeah, it’s cool that (as writers) we sorta have the ‘last word’ in many experiences which were unfortunate or negative at the time. I don’t really think of it as ‘revenge’ quite so much — though tempted at times. Rather, it’s like making lemonade out of lemons. I could have spent this entire grocery experience being ‘terse’ or worse. [that rhymes]. But instead, I was captivated by the unlikely concentration of implausible drama-snips.

  7. Sug, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Glad your consumer shopping experiences have been blessed with NO rude employees.
    I’ve had more than my share of appalling behavior and attitude from store clerks. But that’s a story for a different column.

  8. Thanks Jeff! What a fun post.

    I love “getting revenge” by turning annoying people into characters. And former bosses. And *ahem* bad dates (once some time has passed). Yeah, I’m kind of mean, but that’s what you get for messing with a romance / chick lit writer!


    Melissa (aka Melina)

  9. Lois Grant (Sug)

    Thoroughly enjoyed it and I agree with Jenn about the baby formula. Also in all my years of grocery shopping, I have yet to run across a rude or surly checker as it is usually the customers who are rude. Of course, I am always a gracious shopper (tongue in cheek with this comment) and maybe that is why checkers are nicer to me. And Jeff, I always apologize all over myself to the people who are in the line behind me whenever that is a holdup. Loved the reason for the weight of the bananas! Beats having a thumb on the scale. Eagerly waiting to hear the REAL STORY.


  10. Hey, folks, we’re doing great with this column!
    Eleven different individuals have already commented and likely even more have read the posting and other comments.
    Thanks for all the support!
    Answers tomorrow.

  11. Madeline (Sis) —
    Glad you comment finally arrived on post.
    Thanks for the kind remarks.
    Interesting guesses about the scale’s “reason” for malfunctioning and the character hybrid. You probably know I’m experimenting with Jello hybrids, so perhaps that was your clue.
    However, I’m pledged not to reveal until tomorrow morning the “truth vs fiction” of the account. So, tune in again on Tues.

  12. Rebecca, thanks for your comment.
    That’s the writer’s aim: for all the characters to seem real.
    Tune in tomorrow for the ‘answer’ about what’s what.

  13. Thanks for posting, Kimberley.
    If you were disguised as the tattoo lady in this story, you must have been at the Albertson’s in Bossier City LA about five years ago. LOL

  14. Jeff, this was so well written – and grossly entertaining – that I have no clue which character is fiction. Just goes to show that vivid writing can make anyone into a believer.
    Can’t wait to see the results!

  15. Love it. I think it’s all true except for the woman behind you. I’m sure that is me (I’m always stuck in the line that has some sort of mechanical/human failure) and I don’t have any tattoos.

  16. ROFL, Carla!
    I was, of course, aware of the evocative imagery of the cucumber (and now I’m compelled to reveal that said cucumber WAS one of the actual facts involved in this experience) … but you have raised the ‘heat’ index considerably with your take on the story. Ha.
    Hope I don’t get kicked off this blog by any censor(s). LOL

  17. I would love to be able to claim Jeff as a legal brother but we simply enjoy a facebook friendship with a mutual respect prompting us to refer to each other as “Bro” and “Sis”. Everything I’ve read of Jeff’s work has been thoroughly amusing and attention grabbing whether it be his daily “Possum Trot” postings on fb or one of his “chick lit” manuscrips I’ve just finished reading. I am proud to be his “Sis”.

    Having a sense of humor, a quite interesting life and a “way with words” I generally entertain others with my anecdotes and conversations. But,owever much I inwardly desire to be an author, I am far from it and have a medical background with not much formal education in literature. But I AM a reader who uses characters and their lives as a wonderful escape from reality as reading is quite more affordable than traveling.

    As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed his grocery escapade. Jeff’s writing very down to earth making it quite difficult to choose which character and dialog are authentic. I would choose the reason the scale is broken as the fictitious occurance and the terse lady as merely a combination of traits and behavior which bind the plot and even tie it up with a bow as he snickers about her paying too much for the cucumber.

    Groceries provide a wealth of literary material and I always go when I’m not pressed for time so that I can pick the long line in order to begin a conversation with someone next to me. My grown children tease me that by the time I check out, I know not only the cashier’s name but also how many children she has and where her husband works!

    Happy shopping and writing and….good morning, Bro!

  18. Jenn: Thanks for the compliment and for commenting.
    Hmm. Very specific guess. Too bad we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if you’re correct. Ha.
    Yeah, sometimes comedy is more ‘real’ than drama. Of course, one person’s drama may be another’s comedy. And vice-versa.

  19. There you go again, Jeff. Writing something that is so comical it has to be real.

    My guess is the very first customer with the 31 cans of formula. Using my arithmetic brain and extremely shaky math (hey – that’s why I’m a writer and not an engineer), I can’t imagine cases of formula come in 30 + 1. And if they do, why not buy the bulk size? Plus, wouldn’t the cashier be able to scan 1 item and them hit the additional amount purchased? LOL! Good grief!

    Great post! Thanks for the smile this morning.


  20. D.D — What a wonderful, fulsome comment! Even as I blush from the praise, I deeply appreciate your kind words. Thanks.
    You know, I can sense a story arising out of Line 21 at Hell-Mart … though, of course, you’d have to write it.
    Maybe if you switch to RUM, like Captain Jack Sparrow, life in [? Illinois ? ] would be easier. Ha.
    Do they sell brandy in cardboard boxes … like I’ve seen some of the wine?

  21. Knowing you, Jeff, this is all true, merely somewhat exaggerated. Now in Chick Lit, the woman with the cucumber would become the love interest of the guy who got the scale fixed and would have hung around long enough to demand a refund on the cucumber and start a relationship. Cucumbers, so evocative in romance. It should be longer than average.

  22. Ok…I say…who cares who’s real and who isn’t?! LOL! This is just a hoot of a good time to read!

    It all sounds so real that I completely suspended by disbelief…and that’s your job as the writer, Jeff, to get me to do just that!!! Well done!!!

    And damn, I sooo know this happened at a local Hell-Mart in the infamous Line 21 which is the ONLY line you can buy alcohol and cigarettes…at least at my Hell-Mart!!! I mean…really…I don’t smoke, never have, never will and tell everyone &itching about that in the line that they should probably quit smoking anyway. But messing with my ability to get alcohol?! Well, I don’t give a crap how big the cucumber is or what it weighs, just get me my brandy, and I’m on my way!!!

    Sooo much fun, Jeff!

    A fabulous post!!!

    Maybe we should have on ongoing series on your Grocery and Hell-mart woes…talk about great ways to find Chick Lit-ish characters!!!

    Smiles and Still LMAO Wishes — D. D. Scott

  23. Runere —
    Thanks for reading and commenting. And for your kind remarks.
    Interesting guess.
    LOL about that ‘sugar daddy’ in the scale experience. Now, I’m eager to read THAT grocery experience.

  24. Chris, thanks for your comment.
    I’m just like a kid at Christmas — I’m ready for the ‘reveal’ right now. But Melissa and I worked it out to be tomorrow … so I’ll have to wait.

  25. I really got a kick out of reading this one, Jeff! You relay incidents so well! Have shopped. Have progressed from gentle suggestion there’s a problem to demanding the manager appear. (While standing in a subtle sideways position in case I need to defend myself from restless customers in line behind me who resent my stubbornness.)

    I think it’s ALL real with the exception of the reason the scale was buggered. I say it was off because of the three-year-old who’d swiped the Sugar Daddy–while his harried mother unloaded items onto the belt–had to get rid of the evidence. He’d pushed the half-eaten caramel sucker into the crack between the scale plate and counter platform. (Please don’t ask how I know this is even possible! Just accept it as you do gravity and algebra formulas!)

  26. Jeff, I read every word, and I have no clue who’s real and who’s not. Can’t wait for the reveal!

  27. Thanks for visiting, Tonya. Formerly, I didn’t DO grocery stores all that often, but for the 4-5 years I’ve been in KY, I go 3 times a month at least. But regardless of the frequency: whenever I go, I’m always ready to be out of there — rather like the terse, cucumber woman.

  28. I love this!! AND I think it’s all true. Except for the vivid descriptions you gave us of terse lady and surly clerk. That part came from your writer brain! I love your posts! Jillian

  29. Hmmm…I think the real situation is the women who was mad b/c of the line and having to wait for an item check. Whenever I go to the grocery, I am prepared that the lines might be long–so I don’t go when I’m in a hurry or with a short fuse. Life’s too short to get angry over groceries. LOL!

    Of course I’ve used real-life people as characters. It’s the best way to seek revenge!

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