Put Away the Phone and People Watch

I’m headed for the airport in a couple of hours and am looking forward to the wait for my plane. Well, okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that I will put that time to good use, by people watching.

As a writer, you must make time to people watch, to observe the pantheon of characters within your orbit, wherever you are. Keep a notebook handy and jot down little notes about the folks who drift past you on the tide of humanity. (If you don’t write these down, at least store them in your long-term memory until you have the chance to record them.)

Note clothing, postures, relationships, unspoken communication, facial expressions, accents, attitudes — all of which are elements to put into your characterization tool box. How do young lovers stand, walk, or sit by each other? How do middle-aged couples do the same? And the elderly? What do you see in the elderly that is also in the young couple in love? Why might those elements have lasted into old age? What do they tell you about the people, the relationships, the quality of love?

How do you get a sense of personality or mood from a person’s posture or gait? What assessment do you make of a woman who wears a lot of makeup? of a woman who wears little or none? Of a man who plucks his eyebrows? Now, think. WHY do you make those assessments? Write down your answer.

Listen for accents or turns of phrase, but be aware that writing in an accent is a challenge, both to the writer and to the reader. What you want is a “taste” of the accent, a saying or phrase that gives you the sense of “Other,” of foreignness or dialect.

My favorite are the eyes. I like to watch how people use their eyes, and what their eyes say about them. Wide open, half-cocked, drowsy, side-darting — all of these can say something about the person, beyond just physiognomy.

So, put away your phone, your iPad, and your other electronic devices and people watch. It’s what will make your fiction come alive!

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