Home » Writing Advice » The Sport of People Watching

The Sport of People Watching

(c) hotblack

(c) hotblack

Characters abound in everyday reality outside of the realm of fiction. One just has to know how to find them.  Human interaction floods everyday senses, and for most people, the experience passes without a thought. But not writers. Not writers. We feed off the essence of other humans, absorbing personalities, quirks, facial reactions, likes / dislikes, features, looks, clothing. Every day human beings taking shape and form in a writer’s mind to influence characters that reside in poems, stories, novels.

All authors should partake in the event of “people watching”. It’s a rather addicting sport once you start, and one that can be done at any time, anywhere in public.

There is very little equipment needed to partake in people watching. All one needs is their favorite writing tools:  Pen & notebook, tablet, laptop, smart phone, blood on your t-shirt… well maybe not that last one. Best to remain inconspicuous whilst people watching. The goal is NOT to draw attention.

How to people watch:

Essentially you have to become a wee bit “stalker-ish”.

  • Find a nice comfy place to sit,
  • Arrange yourself with your favorite writing tool,
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself,
  • Hone in on a subject,

And then take it all in:

  • Observe interactions with one another.
    • How are two people communicating? Are they laughing, arguing, staring romantically into each other’s eyes?
    • How does a large crowd of people act? Are they boisterous, jovial, fighting, or singing their hearts out?
    • How does a person on their own act? Is she tucked away in the corner, is he confidently out in the open, is she reading a book, is he staring at his smartphone?
  • Watch facial expressions.
    • What kind of look is the subject making?
    • What is causing them to react in such a way?
  • Pay attention to little movements, like brushing hair behind an ear or fiddling with a ring.
    • What is motivating those actions?
    • What kind of emotion does the person emit when they make these motions?
  • Listen to conversations.
    • What kind of conversation is it? Friendly chatter, romantic sayings, heated arguments?
    • How is each person handling their side?
    • What kind of reactions or little movements are the subjects making during the conversation?
  • Inhale and take in the scent of the atmosphere around you.
    • Is the smell of the location influencing your subjects, like in a coffee shop or bakery?
  • Feel the temperature of the location.
    • Is it too hot because there are too many people around?
    • Is it too cold because there are only a few?

What are the benefits?

There are too many benefits from people watching than I could possibly list, however, for the context of today, the main benefit is that people watching helps to develop characters and build scenes. It provides a catalyst of inspiration to those who may be struggling to get a character formed, or it provides enhancement for others who are trying to write a wider of characters. Scenery can also be fleshed out whilst observing people. Since an environment has an impact on how one is acting, pull some of that influence from the scene in reality to enhance a scene in your fiction, connecting that with how your character exists within that scene.

How often should this be done?

As often as need be. The thing is, once you become obsessed with the sport of people watching, you sometimes struggle to turn off the channel. You will soon catch yourself observing everything and anything around you. And it will all become embedded in your brain. Not only is people watching going to help you grow as an author, it is also going to help you grow as a person. You will learn to better analyze those around you.

So go forth and take in all that people watching has to offer.

Where are some of your favorite places to people watch? What are some of the most bizarre things that you have observed that influenced a character in your fiction?


13 thoughts on “The Sport of People Watching

  1. Great post, Amanda. Let me add that people watching is great when you’re stuck in your story. I’ve stood in the lobbies of banks where my story was going to have a bank robbery, gone to the cemetery for sensory details…it also breaks the writer’s block and sends me back scribbling to the page. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Marcy!! It really is a tactic that helps to get out of those situations when you feel “stuck” in your story. Ah, the cemetery for sensory details. Connecting with a scene in person really does help to influence the writer’s brain as well!

  2. Aloha Amanda,

    Darn you! Social Media Time was almost over, Writing Time was approaching – I was already thinking about my little hero girl in the hotel room with her boss. Then I read this post.

    Of course I wanted to go people watch! But I resisted, “Stick to routine Wayne. You have to get her out of that room with her virtue intact.” Then Marcy kicked in with, it’s great when you’re stuck – and I knew I was beaten.

    Later ladies, I’m off to the coffee shop. Maybe someone there will show me how to convincingly save the girl.

    A Hui hou,

      • Aloha Amanda,
        The coffee shop was fun. I didn’t do very well at people watching though. I fell victim to my own nature, if there are people around I’m going to talk with them.
        In the beginning I was only observing. However, my curiosity soon got the best of me and, “Hi, I’m Wayne” just slipped out of my mouth. That pretty much ended my unobtrusive observer status and I was immersed in the dynamics of the conversation. On the plus side, I did learn about the importance of soil analysis on construction and renovation in Nagoya, Japan.
        I’ve evidently got more work to do on my people watching.
        A Hui Hou,

        • Interacting with test subjects…er… I mean people can sometimes bring about a wealth of information for future story ideas. What you learned about soil analysis may prove useful one day.

          • Aloha Amanda,

            Most of the “subjects” are vacationing visitors and they love to tell “back home” stories. Consciously I don’t remember most for long, but I think every word is stored deep in my subconscious. Sometimes parts leap out and land on the page … and I am left wondering, “Where did that come from.” — Did you just buy a bicycle?

            A Hui Hou,

  3. I used to have fun people watching and now a days I work in a place where I see people all day and it can not be more fun, it is so amazing what one can learn by people watching. I love the term “People Watching” … It helps me in writing better… I miss going to the beach and watching people though… Wonderful post Amanda 🙂

    • Last night, I spent an hour in a coffee shop just writing down tidbits of conversations that other people were having. Found a lot of gold! People watching is such a fun pastime. I bet the beach was a great place to grab some interesting inspiration.

  4. Buses are an absolute treat in this regard. Nothing like an Arriva bus to bring you the rich tapestry of human misery and triumph in one hour long journey of smells and sights.

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