How People-Watching Makes You a Better Writer

by Guest Contributor

Smirking woman wearing big glasses

The recent search for two paid contributors to Write It Sideways has yielded wonderful results. I received more applications than I could have imagined, and had the enormous challenge of narrowing down the list to just a handful of very talented writers. I look forward to sharing the most promising articles with you during November. 

Today’s post is written by Cindy Huff. Thanks, Cindy!

People-watching is an essential part of being a writer.

I love to people-watch. I find the way people walk and the clothing they wear—even how they carry their cell phones—fascinating. Because I don’t know them personally, I can imagine a whole life for them. My mind creates struggles and scenarios involving these strangers that pass through my life for an hour, a minute, or a nanosecond.

Characters in fiction come from real-life people. Our mental camera brings to mind that too-thin woman who moves like a gazelle as she washes her windows, the autumn wind almost blowing her over. Maybe another character is a compilation of a brother’s bullhorn laugh, an old math teacher’s comb-over hair style and a politician’s voice pattern. Real people make your characters more believable.

People-Watching in New Surroundings

I just returned from a trip to the Philippines, where my mind and my camera captured many interesting characters. I interacted with so many people the three weeks I was there. Some, I got to know intimately; others I noticed in passing.

Three of the images I captured on film come to my mind:

  • The 3-year-old boy who can’t sit still for a minute. If he wasn’t pushing his toy car across the floor he was pushing a plastic chair across the church. Such energy could fuel a light bulb.
  • The elderly man whose job it was to the cut the grass at the resort with hedge clippers. The gentlemen squatted with his backside inches from the ground. Moving his feet ever so slightly, he clipped the grass to look like golf course turf.
  • The hotel security guard dressed in black, toting a large shotgun as he paces across the front of the building. The set of the guard’s face changing from deadly stern to a friendly smile as he opens the door for the hotel guests.

Each of these people could be the basis for a character in a story. All of them have unspoken thoughts and desires that I can bring to life as a writer. My mind pictures them in different places.

Perhaps the little boy is climbing up the cabinet in search of forbidden things. The elderly man stretches his aching body as he walks home to his bamboo hut, greeting his neighbors along the way. The security guard’s mind is full of fantasies about the girl at the front desk, as he counts his steps before pacing the other direction.

People-Watching Stimulates Creative Juices for Non-Fiction

People-watching can create metaphors and similes that drive a point home in an article or piece of non-fiction.

I remember watching my son’s neighborhood league baseball game. Sitting in the bleachers surrounded by Hispanic parents who cheered and chatted in Spanish was a new experience for me. Absorbing the sights and sounds around me as I watched the game, and feeling cut off from those around me because of the language barrier, led to my ponderings over how it felt to be an immigrant.

Watching a mother interact—or should I say not interact—with her child as he skated around Wal-Mart got my mind ruminating. That led to an editorial on respect.

Be Prepared to People-Watch

People-watching can be done anywhere, so have a notebook to jot down your observations.

If you happened to be sitting in a Wi-Fi hotspot, it’s easy to just type your observations, and no one is the wiser. Many phones have a note-taking application.

Jotting down your observations does two things:

  1. When your mind has lost its creative edge, you can read over your notes for story ideas.
  2. It gives you a storehouse of character components—a Mr. Potato Head of possible fiction characters.

*Editor’s Note: Has people-watching ever led you to write something you would never otherwise have dreamed-up? What are your favourite spots for people-watching? 

Cindy Huff is a writer and speaker, member of the Christian Writers Guild, and president of Word Weavers in Aurora, Illinois. She has been a guest columnist for the Beacon News, script writer for CBH, and has had articles and children’s stories published in various periodicals. Visit her blog Writer’s Patchwork  for more writing tips and author interviews.

  • Carrie Schmeck

    “Such energy could fuel a light bulb.” I *love* that sentence!

    And I just had a conversation about people-watching. I am a non-fiction writer so I tend to ask why. Why would that lady do that? What would have happened if…? For me, that usually leads to an investigative feature article. I’m working on letting my mind make up details because I would like to venture into the world of fiction.

    Thank you for the picture of *how* you do it.

    • Cindy Huff

      hey, Carrie,
      If you love investigative reporting think mystery when you delve into fiction. Have fun!

  • Ashley Prince

    I love people watching. Working at Barnes & Noble is such a joy because there are constantly different kinds of people in and out of the store. From the cute little children, to the angsty teenagers, to crazy parents, and then of course, the cute old couples.

    Great post!

  • TMZ

    I’m definitely sure to carry a little notebook whenever I go out to places like Panera or the park. Especially the airport. There’s just too many possibilities for inspiration in the form of other people. I marvel at the thought of including one of these ‘characters’ in a story someday, and I can’t help wondering if someone ever people-watches me like I do them.

  • Pingback: How People-Watching Makes You a Better Writer | Influential, Inspiring, and Innovative People and Books of all time. |

  • Gargantua

    I have to agree with TMZ about the airport. It is by far my most favorite place to people watch.

  • Sarah Callender

    And people-LISTENING too. On the rare occasion that my husband and I are out to dinner, I can’t help but listen in (yes, eavesdrop) on the other diners’ conversations. Other people are infinity times more interesting than I! My husband can’t understand how I can eavesdrop and carry on conversation with him. One ear is on him, the other is on that terribly unhappy couple who’s fighting about the Visa bill to my right.

    Great post, Cindy!

    • Rose Byrd

      Sarah, my now-adult children were always amazed when growing up and attending public events with me that I could hear from Row 6 back up to Row 86! Don’t you find we listen with much more than our ears?

  • florence fois

    Thanks, Cindy. I can see you are a great addition to WIS :)

    The baby in the family, the only girl in a sea of boys, the odd-ball out and the kid who daydreamed … that was the beginning. Characters float in my head … I did two posts on how we “find” characters. I mine the backroads of my memory and use everything. People eating at a lunch counter, old folks shopping, kids in their own world. I am a people watcher, a people lover and have been blessed to find great characters everywhere.

  • Pingback: Note 188 – How people-watching can help a non-fiction writer too… « My writing challenge()

  • Alicia

    the airport is one of my fave places to watch people. i invent where they are going and why just based on the visual information I collect in 10 seconds. it’s fun to do this with another person too. you just have to be respectful not to stare and make people wonder why you’re looking at them!

  • Rose Byrd

    ALL of my posts this week have been written in my notebook while people-watching/listening with more than just eyes and ears! How much I agree with Sarah Callender about the listening!

  • Cindy Huff

    Listening is always interesting. Ever wonder what is being said on the other side of that loud cell phone conversation?

  • Sarah Baughman

    Great post, Cindy! It reminded me a bit of a fiction writer who once told me that she wasn’t always sure what her characters were going to do next. Fictional characters can– and should– be just as complex as real people, so observing all kinds of people as you suggest certainly aids character development. It seems it could really help writers develop authentic dialogue, too.

  • Ileandra Young

    Its so true!
    I only just wrote a blog entry about where my characters come from and a lot of them come from just watching people go about their lives.
    Brilliant piece!

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