On People Watching

Hey. I’m not crazy. People watching is a genuine thing writers (and other creative people I guess) do. It’s fun. Try it.

What is people watching? People watching can be as simple as sitting in a cafe with your notebook and a pen and recording interesting things about the people around you. Something like, “elderly lady in a pink jacket with blue jeans and trainers drinks a coffee whilst reading on her smartphone” can be enough to spark off a story. 

I people watch a fair bit, even if I don’t record it. For writers, it can be a great way to get to know different habits and ticks of people which you can use in your own writing to make it seem more realistic. You might even get your character just by observing someone, or a plot of a short story.

There are many different ways to people watch, though, so don’t necessarily take my word as direct instructions. I did this exercise in my creative writing class. I like to record in notes, like the example I gave earlier, or writing down interesting dialogue I hear directly as I hear it. Others, though, seem to write full-on descriptions as if they were writing a novel about this person. Either way, they are both as effective, but for different people. When you record in your writing journal, it’s a very personal thing so don’t think, “Oh this one writer said they do it like this, so this is the way I must also do it.” That just isn’t how it works!

Obviously when people watching, it can be awkward if you get too obvious. I think it goes without saying not to follow someone, as this is classed as “stalking”, and yeah you can get done for that (meaning: get arrested). I like to glance a few times every now and then, and it’s helpful if there’s something behind a person to look at (or pretend to look at) like a menu. Another way is to hold your phone or a book up to your face but peek over the top or around the sides!

For an hour on Thursday I sat in a cafe and people watched. A couple noticed me and obviously thought I was acting weirdly – they seemed to have just come off a shift as I was sat in the sports park and they were surrounded by volley balls – but I just averted my gaze. I had my bag in front of my notebook, so it could have just looked like I was doing work (which, technically, I was). Don’t tell my teacher, but I was also checking my phone, so I wasn’t just staring at people and writing for an hour – that does look suspicious. A phone is easy to dip in and out of (I was actually messaging someone) so I find that it helps to keep me relaxed, and then that means other people around me are relaxed too.

People watching is a great exercise. You can do it whilst commuting, on a lunch break, whilst waiting for your coffee at Costa or even at work/school/college/university/insert establishment here. Not only does it inspire, but it also means that you are always gaining observation skills and listening skills which are useful to both your writing and will be useful to future observation (eg on a research trip). I urge you to go and give it a go sometime – it’s worthwhile. Honest.

Do you people watch? Do you have any tips for any other prospective people watchers in the future? Remember that it doesn’t always have to be people – animals are also great inspiration, and I personally think that sometimes dogs look like their owners. Chat to me in the comments below! 🙂 

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