Why Writers Should People-Watch

I love to people-watch. I watch how they carry themselves, the expressions on their faces, their dress, and emotional expression. We had plenty of time to watch people on our California trip.

“Careful, I’ll put you in my book!”

Writers are always asking questions and watching the people around them, picking out this mannerism or that expression for the characters we create. The best way to make sure our characters are authentic is to see how people react in a variety of situations. Marcy made us a ridiculous 4 hours early for our red-eye flight from San Jose at 10:30pm local time scheduled to arrive in Atlanta at 6am local time (we had to cross a couple of time zones). We were very tired, but there were lots of people to watch in the airport .

people waiting in airport Two men sat across from us at the gate still dressed for the office. I turned to Marcy and nodded at the younger of the two men. “Tell me his story.” (It’s hard to discreetly stare at someone btw, especially when you’re too tired to care what they think of you.) The target looked to be in his late thirties, early forties. He wore a thick gold wedding band, and even though he wore a suit jacket and pants, his shirt collar was open to reveal a white undershirt – no tie.

Marcy came up with this crazy story of how he was the inventor/owner of an odour-eliminating shoe company. Boo. She cheated. She was supposed to create a story based on what we could glean from his clothes, attitude and manner. We had a good laugh (at which point I believe he realized we were studying him).

He slouched in the moulded plastic chair watching the hockey game on his phone. He didn’t cross his legs, or stretch them out in front of him. His clothes were unremarkable, neither expensive nor shabby. I pictured him with a wife and young kids, a business man by default not choice. Maybe he had an aptitude for his business, but didn’t care for it much. He was taking this late-night flight so he could put his kids in bed and have supper with his family before being away for a few days. He’d much rather be at home in his sweats watching the game on his big screen, his wife reading a novel next to him on the sofa.

As we lined up to wait for the boarding call, Marcy and I descended into obnoxious banter and juvenile giggling. You know – that stage where everything is funny and you’re incapable of lowering your voice? I was fascinated by the change in the man we’d been watching. He stood behind us listening in to our conversation at first, but slowly turned away. His toe tapped to a rhythm only he could hear. He edged his carry-on between us.

“I hope I don’t sit near them,” he said to his friend.

He found us irritating. (Shocking, I know.) His complete disdain showed in every facet of his stance. He’d gone from realizing we were staring and being slightly amused (and maybe a little flattered by the way he kept glancing at us), to completely turned-off in a manner of minutes. I instantly realized the difference between a mature man and a young man. His opinion had of us had gone from ‘interested’ or  ‘maybe’ to ‘I’m too old for that nonsense’. A whole range of emotions peeked through from curiosity, surprise, irritation, to frustration. We boarded the plane and never saw him again, and I’m sure he was thankful to be rid of us 😛

I can only imagine what people watching us were thinking, I’m sure we gave them a few story ideas too. But as writers, it’s important to watch people go through a range of emotions and see how they express those emotions. Do they talk with their hands? Watch their body language. I could tell the man behind us was irritated long before his comment to his friend. How did I know that? Use these small details to bring your story to life for readers.



3 comments on “Why Writers Should People-Watch

  1. Not our finest moment. Learn from our fail: When you’re stressed and sleep deprived, your inhibitions are down and you will make a fool of yourself. I wish I could apologize to that businessman (and the others around us).

    But our embarrassing faux pas did produce some beneficial insights into human nature that we’ll be able to use as we write. I highly recommend people watching . . . just be more discreet than we were 🙂

    (P.S. As one of the authors of this site, my comment obviously doesn’t count for the contest.)

  2. My husband and I love to people watch. Ever since I was a child, I was interested in the “stories” of the strangers that past by. I’d sit in the back seat of the family car and gaze out the window, observing each car we passed and its inhabitants. Who were all these people, and what were their lives like? Did they know Jesus? Were they happy?

    Needless to say, I love your post, and don’t we all need a juvenile moment every once in a while? 🙂

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