The Importance of People Watching

Any writer knows that to write fiction, you need to understand human behaviour.  What can be better than people watching?

I’ve always been a people watcher.  This doesn’t come from being a writer, this is a side effect of my introversion.  I watch many aspects, like how they walk, how they talk, body language, posture, how they interact with others, and so on.  It’s one of my strategies for dealing with others when I have to speak with them.  And I speak with many people every day in my job.  I’ve learned to adapt how I speak with others depending on what kind of person they are.  I can usually get along with anyone, even people I don’t like very much.  While others may get into arguments with that person, I seem to be able to diplomatically defuse situations.  Of course, this only works if we speak the same language.  I know when to let the person talk, and I know how to interrupt them.  A lot of this comes from years of experience in both teaching and customer service.

All of this is important for writing, because if we don’t understand how people behave, characters will end up being very unnatural and stereotypical.  When reading a serious novel, stereotypical characters turn me off.  I don’t want cookie cutter characters, I want well-rounded people. So what you need to do is not only watch how people move and behave, but also listen to conversation.  How do they say what they say?  Take notes about figures of speech, natural phrases, and how people respond in conversation.

If you can’t get out and are stuck in front of your computer, try watching some YouTube videos.  It’s best if they aren’t staged, acted, or a monologue in front of a webcam.  Look for those candid videos where someone just happens to be recording what’s happening.  You can get real behaviour and conversation that way.  Do you want to write a fight scene?  Watch a video of an actual fight in public.  For research, not entertainment, of course.  Don’t watch a movie fight scene.  Those are choreographed and not realistic.  You can also find good arguments on YouTube.  Listen to what they say.  Listen to how their language changes.  It’s quite different than their usual calm language.

There are many ways to observe people. What do you like to do?

10 thoughts on “The Importance of People Watching”

  1. My people watching, I think, also grew a lot out of my introversion… it can be such a useful and helpful skill, to be sure (for writers and non-writers alike, honestly)

  2. I read about this. . . I’m not really a people watcher. I think in college I kind of was, but I spend most of the past three years inside my house interacting with people via online messaging. So I’m trying to actively observe people now. I think this is why I struggle with the nuances accompanying dialogue.

    1. Ah, I was like that in university. I spent a lot of time online playing on a MUD (text-based game), watching anime, and of course, studying. Now I do none of those, except the occasional bit of studying. But I do watch people a lot. It really came from my old job in a call centre. I became a supervisor and had to deal with a large variety of workers.

  3. I am a writer of fiction, fantasy fiction to be exact. I love to watch people and how they interact, but I’ve been stuck at home, caring for my mom, for a year or so. Thank you for mentioning YouTube videos! I didn’t think to watch those in order to get exposure to others!

  4. I like to watch how people interact. Sometimes, if I hang around with someone I like a lot, I’ll start adopting their mannerisms in little ways. It’s weird, and I often don’t notice until someone else points it out. Dunno why. It’s not on purpose.

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