Do you ever go to a cafe, or sit at the station waiting for your train/bus, and just watch everyone else? This is generally considered ‘people-watching‘ and I love it. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of other people that fires up my imagination. Observed idiosyncrasies that might be ingrained habits or a nervous tic, and overheard snippets of conversation give rise to potential scandals and plots.
The great thing is that anyone can do it, anywhere they are. It can be something planned – just find a spot in a cafe somewhere – or it can be a spontaneous decision to simply fill time whilst waiting in a queue at the supermarket, for example. Alternatively, if you’re a homebody, like me, it can be fun to switch on the T.V. turn the volume off and find an unfamiliar show or film; watch the characters, see what you can find out just through noting how they move and their facial expressions when they speak.
Sometimes, when indulging in a bit of people-watching, I can feel like a spy on a covert mission, trying to identify the villain! It’s addictive once I start, and occasionally I can get fixed on a single person and their behaviour and determine their entire life story. When I make the effort to sit down and observe people I notice things I would have missed before; the way a woman bites her lip whilst on her phone, or the tapping of a man’s fingers on his train ticket and the bounce of his knee.
I’ve never been caught people-watching, but I tend to have a number of tactics to ensure this doesn’t occur. I pretend to read a book or a newspaper, surreptitiously peering over the text at people as they come and go. This also works with a laptop – meaning you can keep notes straight into a document. If you’re a veteran, and use this method, you’ll likely use a wing-dings font so that no-one else can look over your shoulder to catch you ‘spying’!
Mobile ‘phones are also excellent camouflage when people-watching. We’re a society of bowed heads now, with so few people bothering to look up over their screens. Tapping out notes on a phone app can work like a charm; you’ll appear so engrossed in your texting that you’ll fit right in!
As to why I’d recommend people-watching, well, other than being a fascinating anthropological exercise it’s great for building a foundation of observations that can be used for character work. Noting the look of certain people – a long, ski-jump nose on one, while another has eyes set deep in his face – and then combining these to describe an individual character can work really well. Then there is the scrutiny beyond the behavioural features : jut why is that man tapping his ticket and bouncing his knee – is he late? Has he had too many cups of coffee? Is it the first symptom of a disease like Parkinson’s? Delving into the why of the particulars of people’s habits can be a fab way to develop a character.
Then, there can be further character work surrounding how they may feel about the features and habits they’ve been assigned. Has our hero decided to swear off alcohol and the jitters are the first sign of withdrawal? Does he believe he can stay sober, or will he slip into the first pub he sees? What’s his motivation for getting sober – will he be a father soon and he wants to be a good role model for his son? Or does he need to stay sober for his job, as he’s on his last warning?
Once you’ve started asking these questions a story is likely to emerge somewhere, somehow. Usually I’ll get embroiled in these during my people-watching session, and the moment I’m more interested in my story than I am in the crowd around me I know I’ve got the start of something I need to focus on.
Have you got any tips for people-watching? When was the last time you spent time really examining the people around you?
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