Things Writers Can Learn by People Watching

“Some people dream of success while other people get up every morning and make it happen.”
– Wayne Huinzenga

I love to get out and take my work on the go. This is my freedom as an entrepreneur. I take advantage of studying people while I am out; anywhere from the bus to the coffee shop or bookstore. Their conversations are going to help me write better dialogue as I write snippets of their lingo and phrases into my notebook. Studying their body language helps me for when I go to write character descriptions. Secretly I compile these observations for my own keeping, as do writers across the board.

If you have never tried people watching, then why not? I find that it’s particularly useful. Sometimes you have to put yourself in your character’s shoes. If your character spends most of their day in a park, go to a park and observe people. What are they doing? With whom are they speaking and what are their actions? Are they relaxed, on their cell phones or not aware of their surroundings? All of these will help your descriptions, in addition to constructing your story scene. 

So, first things first. Buy yourself a small notebook and pen. Or, use a digital application on your phone. Either work just fine; it must be comfortable for you. Make sure the application syncs to all of your devices; this will save time. Then, focus in on these three observations to excel at your people watching:

How do they act when they are alone versus with others? 

I’ve noticed that some people walk fast when alone and others walk slow. Their style of walk may change. They may have a slow-paced step while alone, but if they are with someone else, then there may be a pickup in their step. Do they have any walking assistance? A cane, crutches or a walker? Are they struggling or getting along fine with these? Note these in your observations (That is, if you have characters with disabilities.) Observing how people get along by themselves will help you describe your character that much better. 

What technology do they use when they are alone? Phone, mp3 player, Kindle, tablet or something else? Often this technology is out of sight when there is one or more people with that individual. This individual now has someone engaging their attention. Think of the last time you went walking in the park with a friend. Did you have a cell phone out or take a call on it? Did you have your earbuds in and listen to the radio? Chances are that you didn’t; in most cultures, this is considered to be rude. We do this when we are alone because we need that engagement. We get bored if our brain is not stimulated with something. 

What is their appearance?

I’ve sat by some really stinky people on the city bus. I’ve seen people that were clean-cut and well-dressed. These people were groomed well. Their hair was in order; many of the women wore stylish makeup while a lot of the men wore ball caps. At the same time, I’ve seen people that could have just woken up prior to getting on the bus. Messy hair, wrinkly clothes, and many not giving much thought to their outward appearance. 

What about the people you observe? What do you think their style of dress says about them? Let’s say you see a sloppy man at the park. He reeks of body odor and his teeth are stained. His clothes may be wrinkled or torn; he may be missing shoes. It’s easy to pre-judge this man and say that he’s lazy or that he doesn’t care about his personal hygiene. But…don’t rush to this judgement. Think deeper. What may have gone on in his life that brought him to this moment in time?

As you write about this man in your notebook, picture him as your fictional character. Is he a messenger your protagonist meets along his or her journey? Is this a future version of your protagonist; and, if so, what circumstances lead him to this point? Is this person related to your protagonist, such as a long lost relative? The possibility is endless, but when you have the actual person in front of you—show empathy. Be compassionate and understanding. Even the best of people are down on their luck and we could use help now and again. 

How is the people you’re observing confident?

Body language speaks volumes about confidence. Someone who is confident holds their head high. They walk with a peppy step in their walk and they smile. Their wardrobe, too, is a big tip off. Confident people dress for success. If they are going to a business meeting, they will dress in the attire which is necessary. They will over-prepare and excel at each goal that is set before them. Confident people take part in the celebration of victory achieved by others. They ultimately surround themselves with people that are going to boost them up. These people are going to help them advance their career or other areas of their life. 

Now, let’s flip the script. What are the red flags if someone is insecure? First and foremost, they look to the ground quite frequently. They may fidget with their hands, jewelry or a pen as part of anxious habits. When a colleague or friend achieves success, this type of person may ask themselves: Why not me? They question their self-worth daily, and it often shows in their appearance. Their clothes often don’t shout “success,” but rather they may dress in more comfortable clothes. Furthermore, they try to measure themselves up to others. They may feel as if they fall short when they can’t arise to the high standards of others; thus, it leads to stress and may make it seem as if they’re on a never-ending hamster wheel. It’s hard to shake this feeling, but it can be overcome. 

So, how are you going to incorporate people watching into your writing? This can be an invaluable exercise if you struggle with character descriptions. If you struggle writing character actions and reactions, then people watching is going to help you overcome this. For instance, how does a person react when a vase shatters onto the floor? When a spider unexpectedly crawls across the countertop? Reaction helps the readers visualize the scene that much more, hinting at character gestures and expressions. Incorporate your observations from people watching into your fiction and you’ll be well on your way! 

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