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The Art of People Watching

May 6, 2009

This fortnight especially, our writers have been focused on characters and their origins, development and portrayal. Readers of this site will now be well equipped with tips on  building characters, questions to ask your characters in order for you to understand a little more about their back history or motivations and the interesting concept of characters choosing the author to tell their story.  (I understand that Jodi will be focusing on this specific area in her next few posts – so won’t steal any of her thoughts or thunder in this area.)

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Image by KRSPO via Flickr

I thought I’d share one of my favourite ways to meet a character  – for the times when  you are left with either a blank page or have created a whole world with nothing in it and await the arrival of the characters and for some reason have refused to show their faces, or for the simple pleasure of seeing what sorts of interesting characters may present themselves thus introducing further story lines to your stable.

People watching is a delightful pastime for any writer and their imagination. Choose a busy place such as a bus going into town, a transit centre, a crowded food court or busy street café. These sorts of areas tend to throw the most interesting people and conversations into your path. In fact last year we had a Friday Fiction challenge where we  captured conversation snippets to weave into a cohesive story with some brilliant results.. Armed with my trusty notebook and pen, people going about their busy lives make appearances onto my page without their ever knowing it.

I love to guess what they do for a living, how and where they live, name a deep dark secret they are holding, imagine who they are about to meet up with and for what nefarious reason and  how the people they are with (if any) are connected . Each one of these observations make interesting aspects that help build up a characters personality. Actors are also avid people watchers, making note of the way they hold their bodies, have done their hair, chosen certain jewelry or items to carry with them. For many actors, whole characters are born from a single item of clothing; and their aught be little reason that a writer cannot borrow from that notion.

Be warned though as there is a subtle art to people watching. You cannot just sit  and stare at people in bars or on trains and then write furiously in your notebook. Human beings have a primal instinct when it comes to being observed or scrutinized and an almost spy like observance needs to be undertaken while on your fact finding trips. Choose your weapons carefully; a clipboard will always give you an air of authority, an ornate notebook and fountain pen, the look of a poet, a small flip over notebook and a pocket of pens, the uneasy feel of a geek. I love to take my laptop to cafes, but it becomes unwieldy on public transport and I gaze with undisguised jealousy at those people with notebooks and other such portable technology.

I do take a shoddy notebook everywhere I go – to capture thoughts, character sketches and ideas as I go. However – the planned trip to people watch takes on an energy of its own – and one which can be (carefully) shared with author friends involving passing of notes, giggles and furtive glances about the space. Take care of the local constabulary should you venture out and about whilst writing snippets of stories. Mention or details of murders, terrorist acts or unsociable behaviour may land you in more trouble than you bargained for.

Annie Evett loves to sit for hours and watch the wildlife walk past. Yes, you are in one of my stories, Sorry, but you are going to die horribly and the more you annoy me, the more painful and gory it will be. You can catch her growing amount of websites and blogs here
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6 Comments
  1. May 6, 2009 6:05 am

    I love people watching. I blogged about this today too :-)

    My favourite way is doing it by chance on my way to work, with my headphones on I can’t hear conversations so make them up myself according to their body language.

  2. May 6, 2009 8:37 pm

    I love to watch people at the mall. It’s amazing what people do when they think no one is watching! I also like to make up stories and try to figure out who they are.

    This post is informative and interesting. Thank you.

  3. May 7, 2009 1:30 am

    I love people watching. I blogged about this today too :-)

    My favourite way is doing it by chance on my way to work, with my headphones on I can’t hear conversations so make them up myself according to their body language.
    PS: Forgot to add good post!

  4. May 7, 2009 5:47 am

    I have a coffee mug at home that says:

    “Careful of what you say and do.
    I’m writing a novel, and it might include YOU”

    There are some great cafepress items with similar sentiments to this:

    “Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you.”
    “If I stare at you, it’s not because you look good. It’s because you just helped me figure out how to off my villain.”

    Be afraid of writers…..

  5. May 7, 2009 8:29 am

    Can I get some t-shirts or coffee mugs with these slogans? what a crack up!

  6. May 7, 2009 5:34 pm

    Wow. these sound great. I want them too.

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