A lesson for writers from Yogi Berra

It’s already old news and you’ve probably heard – Yogi Berra died last week.

Yogi was a baseball hero before I was even born, and he was always there, all my life, as an all-star player, as a manager, as a cultural icon, as famous for his verbal malapropisms as his skill. He was, as sports writer Frank Deford said, the Yankee you rooted for even when you hated the Yankees – and I hate the Yankees. I don’t even follow baseball any more, haven’t for twenty years, but I still hate the Yankees.

But Yogi was special. A funny looking guy, a little guy, yet incredibly skilled behind the plate or at bat. A regular Joe who was the very best at what he did, because he worked so hard at it.

But he’s mostly remembered today for the quirky, even bizarre, things that came out of his mouth. “It’s deja vu all over again.” “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And the classic, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” You can read more of them here.

But this is a column mostly about writing, and there’s one Yogi-ism you should keep in mind if you’re a writer. There’s a lot of truth behind its deceptive simplicity.

“You can observe a lot just by watching.”

It bears repeating. As writers we are trying to recreate something real, something lifelike. We are creating a world. We want readers to believe in that world, to buy into it, to care what happens in it. A big part of making that happen is by listening to and watching life around us. Really look closely at people, how they behave. What we know about people becomes the raw material of the characters we create. We’ve all read one or two wretched books, I’m sure, where the characters seem to be created by a writer who has never actually met people.

In a sense, our characters are nothing more than a series of behaviors. You can make a case that the only thing we really know about fictional characters is what they do. Sure, we hear what we say about themselves, but they could be lying. We get the inner monologue about their feelings and motivations, but they could be fooling themselves and us along with them. All we really know is based on what the actually do.

So you learn to watch, so that when you go to write a character’s behavior or how he or she speaks, it can be based on the way people really talk and move. When you’re at the dentist’s office (where I was this afternoon waiting while the dentist filled Max’s cavity, or in the supermarket, or at a traffic light, you watch people. You see if they exhibit any quirks or ticks that make them stand out, that makes them interesting. You try to figure out their stories – and if that story happens to work in your fiction, TAKE IT!

You can observe a lot, just by watching.

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