Write It Sideways

Looking and Listening: Spy Skills for Writers

Thanks so much to today’s guest poster, Christopher Jackson, who was kind enough to offer this article to help me out while I’m on vacation. (I’m having a great time, by the way. More on that later this week.) Enjoy today’s tips!

I love to people-watch. I always have, ever since I can remember. I like to observe the world around me, and how its residents move through it, lives touching, intertwining and separating again.

It is a rare and simple pleasure, but it wasn’t until I started writing that I realised how beneficial it could be. To write good characters you have to know how people talk, and how they act. If you want your characters to be real, then they have to be able to talk and act like real people would.

“The goal all along was to write a novel based on being with people and listening to them. That’s why so much of Fight Club was written in public, at parties, in bars, at the gym, at work.” – Chuck Palahniuk


Next time you are just hanging out somewhere by yourself, like in a coffee shop or in a park this summer, sit back and simply watch what people are doing around you.

When you look closer, you are sometimes privy to funny, poignant, touching and remarkable moments. The gentle brushing aside of a lock of hair dangling in a girl’s face by her lover, a man stumbling comically over a cat being chased by a dog, someone doing a private dance of joy after receiving a phone call bringing good news.

All these are examples of moments in people’s lives that are deeply personal, and makes them real.


Eavesdropping is often a lot easier than you might think.

I’m not suggesting you sidle up besides a couple having a whispered conversation, notebook in hand and ear cocked in their direction. But, often, people actually talk unnecessarily loudly, which sometimes means you overhear things without even trying. People especially seem to talk loudly when they are on their phones, like they are trying to shout to the person at the other end across the actual physical distance between them.

Hearing one side of a conversation, like with someone on the phone, can be very interesting, because the words are out of context. Maybe you can figure out the context from what they say, maybe not.

In fact, a lot of what is overheard in public is out of context, especially if you catch an odd snippet of conversation as you walk past people going in the opposite direction. When this happens, make up the context!

Use the overheard words as a springboard, a starting point for inspiration.

If you feel uncomfortable eavesdropping (or even if you don’t) check out Overheard In New York – a brilliant website with content submitted by readers of things (often hilarious) that they’ve overheard in the Big Apple, where people of all different walks of life, cultures, races and nationalities come together.

Take Notes

Write all this stuff down!

Jot down interesting things that you hear, or strange mannerisms and character traits that you observe in people. Norman Mailer used to take out a notebook at parties, without even trying to be inconspicuous, to write down interesting things people said or did.

Sometimes a stranger may end up being the entire basis for a character, but other times a particular movement or trait will stand out and be the starting point for a character to be crafted around.

I am starting to keep a Gesture List, recording the little gestures that we all do when I see them in other people, to flesh-out my character interactions and behaviours in my stories.

Perhaps, even take it one step further and, like Chuck Palahniuk when writing Fight Club, write your story in public, or at least the parts that involve heavy character interaction.

Feed off the energy of the people around you, what they are doing and saying, the lives that they are playing out.


Be careful. While eavesdropping and people-watching can be fun, interesting and a useful tool for writers, it can also be disrespectful if you encroach on sensitive or painful moments, or if you overstep your boundaries.

Keep your distance, don’t follow people, and if it feels like you’re being disrespectful, stop.

Have Fun!

People are fascinating creatures. Real-life is interesting, and we want our stories and our characters to feel as real as they can.

Observing and listening to the way people act around us, in all different settings, can be an incredibly useful tool for writers, and one that you might not normally think of.

Plus, you can have lots of fun pretending that you’re a spy!

Christopher Jackson is a freelance copywriter, co-editor for Fuel Your Writing, writer of short stories and attempter of novels. He invites you to follow him on Twitter, and check out his personal blog Never Too Serious.

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