People Watching

Everyone has their own opinion of how to be a better writer and how to make your writing better. There aren’t many writing questions that can be posed without Stephen King offering tidbits of wisdom. Whenever faced with the question of how to become a better writer, I always turn to his response that you must read more and write more. Words of wisdom and words to live by–as a writer, anyway. But what if we broke it down to components. I think most of us have areas we try to emphasize or that become very important to us as we craft our images to paper. One of mine–at least at the moment–is character development. A technique I believe is vital to this step is People Watching.

My wife and I both come from therapy backgrounds–occupational and physical respectively. We have found ourselves over the years sitting on benches such as the one above and watching people as they come and go. Then without even consciously thinking about it, we begin to notice issues within the way they move. Details that make each one unique and we speculate on the why. This developed a habit inside me to pay attention to seemingly mundane details–details that provide realism and believability in the context of a story.

I also learned to watch not just with my eyes but with ears also. I focused on their speech, the conversation people had. This translated to more complete dialogue especially when you store a detail away from an example which strays far from the norm. Someone has a peculiarity, some trait that makes them stand out. The way the intonate, a repetitive mannerism or word used in conversation. All of these details that are lost to most of us as we walk through our lives each day become important to the believability and survivability of our story world and its characters.

Even when I listened to conversation spoken in languages I could not understand. This removes this focus from the words and puts the emphasis on the passion with which the words are spoken and the dynamics of the body as the person speaks. Are they unable to sit or stand still? Do they punctuate every word with dynamic hand and arm movements? Is their head bouncing around as much as their lips are moving?

The point is that the world around us is our greatest resources. Unfortunately, it is one that can be wasted or at least not used to its fullest. We may spend quite some time looking at setting and crafting words to create that same vivid image on the page. A few short weeks ago, I referenced taking pictures and using them later to create a setting. But how many times do we look at the tiniest details? Someone’s gait pattern–it could end up being the giveaway that gets a perpetrator caught in a crime thriller. An odd formal sounding speech–that may provide a single detail that readers will forever identify with that character. It could be a twitch of the eye or repetitive head jerk that allows the character to stand out from the crowd.

If you are struggling to find that next detail, that one thing you can’t put on a finger on that seems to be missing. That item which you feel your story needs to really shine. Don’t forget about the simplest, cheapest, and most available resource to a writer. Head out to the mall, the park, or even just a parking lot and people watch.

And, hey, sometimes people watching makes your chaos not seem so chaotic.

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