One of the major focuses of the writing course I’m taking is observing. It encourages taking notes whenever observations are made of people. I’d also say it’s great to take notes on scenery, but the most important things are the characters.
Today, I observed people and took mental notes about how they looked and behaved. Living in Japan, one thing I observe a lot is how many people wear masks when they have allergies. I notice how teenagers all tend to wear school uniforms. I see people staring at their cell phones while sitting on the train. These are all very common things that people do in Japan. When writing about a society as a whole, you need to figure out what behaviours are common. If writing fantasy, it’s very important, as you’re creating an entire culture. What do the majority of people in your fictional culture do?
On a more personal level, each individual person has their own behaviours that they do. Try watching someone in public and see how they behave, particularly if they’re with friends. You can see body language, habitual behaviour, how the person talks, how they walk, how they tilt their head, if they touch other people, and so on. Look at how they dress. Maybe someone has a unique style or a small feature that’s easily overlooked. There’s so much to observe.
A teenage girl wearing a frilly lace dress with platform shoes, lots of makeup, and very curly hair may be very individualistic and independent. This is not a common thing here in Japan. These people often go to places with like-minded individuals. If they’re on the train, they may be on their way to Harajuku in Tokyo.
If the teenager is wearing black and has dark eye makeup here in Japan, you can be sure they’re fans of the visual kei style of rock music. They seem rebellious, but that’s not always the case. I’ve known a teenager who’s like this, and she’s actually a very friendly person.
A middle-aged man slumping down in his seat on the train holding a can of beer is likely to be a businessman who’s just had a long day and had to endure a couple hours of drinking with his boss. He could be very moody and prone to outbursts of anger if provoked, or he may be clumsy and not really care what he’s doing.
A young man in his early twenties with somewhat long hair that’s styled in sweeping waves and spikes may work at a host club. That’s where women pay plenty of money to just talk and drink with these men. They’re always fashionable and have impossible-looking hairstyles.
A young woman with a backless top and short skirt sporting a giant dragon tattoo on half of her back and down her arm is someone you don’t want to get involved with. She’s a yakuza girlfriend. You can be sure that everyone avoids her. Talk to her and you may end up meeting her yakuza boyfriend. Not a good idea.
These are just some of the people I’ve observed in Japan. They each have their own story and could make great characters. Just keep looking around you and think about how they could fit into a story.