What a Character!

By J.L. 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 [real life] grocery experience from a few years ago:


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 pricey 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.


About Me:

J.L. Salter_author photo

Romantic comedy and romantic suspense are among thirteen fiction titles released through three royalty publishers. Two more titles are expected during 2016.

Also co-author of two non-fiction monographs plus signed entries in other books. I’ve also published articles, book reviews, and over 120 poems; my writing has won nearly 40 awards. As a newspaper photo-journalist, I published about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos.

A decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force, I also worked nearly 30 years in the field of librarianship. I’m the married parent of two and grandparent of six.

To view my most recent novel “Stuck on Cloud Eight” please visit the TouchPoint Press bookstore or Amazon.

Cloud Eight

For more information about Salter, please view his Facebook Author Page:
Or his Amazon author page: http://tinyurl.com/Salter-JL-Amazon

5 thoughts on “What a Character!

    • excellent point. I used to be a lot more diligent about weighing things. But lately, I have my hands full dealing with my 94-yr-old mom in the store, so my focus is elsewhere.

  1. sorry I missed seeing this yesterday. Hope y’all enjoyed this TRUE story, of an experience I had at an Albertson’s grocery in Bossier City LA several years ago.
    It has served me as a good example of how we — as writers — notice people and things in ways that many other folks might miss.
    For example, imagine this scene from the perspective of the tattoo lady behind me…

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