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People Watching: A Guide for Writers.

by Bethany Hudson


In the words of the immortal Judy Blume, “A good writer is always a people watcher.” This makes sense when one considers that all stories are, ultimately, character driven. Yes, even of so-called “plot-driven” novels. Readers only care what happens in a story if they care about who it’s happening to—or better yet, who is causing it to happen.


In other words, character drives plot.


But for a reader to care, they must first believe. Believability is the essential ingredient that will make or break the bond between reader and character.


Believable characters think, speak, and act like real people. Writers must therefore master the subtleties of how people think, speak, and act. One of the greatest tools I’ve found for developing this valuable skill is people watching.


Not to belabor the concept: People watching means just that, watching people. This may seem like a no-brainer. At least B.C. (before Covid), you were probably accustomed to seeing many people throughout a given day. But people watching is different from merely seeing people—and quite different from interacting with them.


In any encounter with another person, you are at least partially aware of your own role. To observe a person—ideally one who does not realize they’re being observed—from a distance allows you to do so with particular attention and clarity. You’ll notice things you wouldn’t normally notice. Furthermore, watching total strangers allows you the freedom to interpret what you observe without the imposition of a personality with which you’re already familiar.


The exercise is simple enough. Choose a location where you’ll be able to see multiple people going about their daily activities. A coffee shop, beach, or the food court at a mall are all great options. Bring paper and something to write with. If you want to be really clandestine, take notes on your phone. People will think you’re texting.


Pick a person. Any person.


Now let your powers of observation run wild. Record anything that sparks your interest. Details of physical features, hairstyle or dress, gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions. Try writing snatches of overheard conversation verbatim. Natural speech patterns and conversational flow can be some of the trickiest things for writers to nail.


Set yourself an amount of time. Fifteen or twenty minutes is good, but you could do an hour or even a whole afternoon. Challenge yourself to stay in place and to keep writing for that whole time. You can observe several people, but I especially recommend focusing on one. At least until they’ve wandered off, then feel free to switch; don’t be creepy and follow them. The longer you stick with one person, the more nuanced your observations will naturally become. Their novelty—the things you noticed at first—will wear off, and you’ll be forced to go deeper.


Once your time is up, you can distill your observations further. I recommend waiting until your next writing session, but you can jump straight in if you wish. This is the fun part. With what you’ve observed, make up a backstory, interaction, or psychological profile for your “character,” inspired by the person or persons you’ve been watching.


Try challenging yourself with inanimate objects. Tombstones yield great backstories. Don’t just rely on the epitaphs; notice the details of the stone itself, the pattern of moss, the divots carved by rainfall. What do they tell you? Pets, potted plants, trees, vending machines, coffee mugs—anything can be anthropomorphized. Especially if you write non-human characters, “object watching” may be a very fruitful exercise for flexing those characterization muscles.


People watching can be done at any time in the writing process, but I especially recommend it to writers who find themselves in a lull. You’re outlining your work in progress but aren’t yet ready to draft. You’ve just sent your query letters flying into the ether, and you’re not sure what to do next. You’re in the middle of drafting, but you’re stuck; your character just doesn’t feel right. Well, maybe they’re not believable enough to you.


Yet.


Spend an afternoon people watching. Maybe you’ll find them there.



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@bethanykhudson