I’m sitting at Starbucks waiting for my wife, and I have a table outside facing a busy street in downtown Yokohama. Lots of foot traffic. I’m watching how people walk. It’s useful for writing, describing how people move. I’m sure a lot of writers people-watch like this.
I see people moving smoothly, barely bobbing up and down, people barely swinging their arms, people hunched forward even though they’re still young, and so on. But there’s one thing I don’t see, people rocking from side to side while they walk. A lot of Americans and Canadians walk that way. Is that from attitude, or is it the result of height and weight? I see people of similar body types in Japan, but they don’t walk like that.
My fellow North Americans, you walk funny. But I’ll tell you one thing, people say I walk funny, too. I think it’s just that I’m not used to seeing North Americans walk. Your perceptions change when you’re away from a culture for so long.
I’m on the train right now. It’s only a short ride. But who do I see?
A woman standing across from me looking at her iPhone with a Minnie Mouse cover. Two young girls about 6 and 8 years old are standing and wearing hats. A man is sitting and doing some kind of number puzzle I’ve never seen before. Next to him is a woman doing sudoku. There’s a man standing without holding onto anything while reading a book. Two men sitting next to each other are complete opposites, one is rather large and balding, the other is really small and has a full head of hair. A woman is standing nearby with a shirt that says “Manhattan Brooklyn New York.” The mother of the children I mentioned before is wearing a yellow Minnie Mouse t-shirt.
Any one of these people could have a fascinating story to tell. I wonder about each one.
Do you ever watch people and try to guess who they are or what they do?
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?