The Writing Life- People Watching

What are characters? Your cast, your actors, the most important parts of your story? Well, yes, that’s all very true. But there’s a more basic answer than that. Characters are people. Or at least, they are the way we either wish people were, or secretly think people are.

To learn to write great characters, you need to learn about people. To do that, you must master the art of people watching. Once again we are borrowing from the habits of our fellow artists, visual artists. Sit near an artist in a coffee shop, and you run the risk of ending up in their sketchbook. So it should be with writers as well. If you’ve never practiced people watching, here are some steps to help you get started.

Always have your notebook with you.

You should already have a notebook with you at all times, but try to keep some pages open for taking notes on the people that surround you. When I started paying attention to the people around me, I was shocked by how no one ever seems to be aware of the fact that anyone else is around them. People will have amazingly personal conversations while shopping in the grocery store.

Wear headphones with the music off.

Like a spy, you don’t always want to be observed observing others. That’s when headphones are your friends. People assume that when you have headphones on you can’t hear them, so they’re not so self conscious. Pop on some headphones and settle in at a local coffee shop. People will go about their business, letting you take notes.

Listen more than look

You can see how people look on the internet. You’re watching people to learn how they act, but more importantly how they talk. Remember, I talked about how important dialog is in this post. So, when you’re people watching, you’re actually listening. Close your eyes and listen to how people talk to each other. Talking is like music in a way. You have to listen to a lot of it to develop an ear for it. If a piece of dialog strikes you, jot it down. Why does it strike you? Take notes on how that line made you feel, and how it would have felt if a friend or loved one had said it to you.

Take a walk through the park

Especially if you’re writing with children characters. Kids gravitate toward parks, and so do a lot of other sorts. Besides, it’s probably a good idea to get out of the house when you can. We don’t need anymore of the sun deprived pale geek stereotype.

Take public transportation

If you’ve never ridden on a bus or subway, do it. I have sat on long bus trips and just wrote notes on everything people around me were saying. Yes, all the rumors about people on public transportation are true. Yes, a woman once petted my chest while I was on a bus. Go try it anyway, you will not find a better place for people watching, I promise you.

If you want your characters to sound and act like real people, you’ve got to study real people. So practice people watching every chance you get.

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