Do you find yourself, in moments of boredom, watching the people around you with different eyes—with focus? What I mean by that is, say you find yourself at the mall or a restaurant or in a doctor’s waiting room—anywhere public—and you just cannot help but watch the people walking by.
I’ve always been a people-watcher, but when I was a young teen and became interested in theater I read books about learning characterization. The best book I found was called “Acting is Believing” by Charles McGaw. In reading his book, I learned the principles of the Stanislavsky method, and if you want to become a better performer, I heartily recommend it.
However, this essay is not about acting, but about inspiration. A writer often needs to access personalities, realistic personalities, to make their writing believable. In the same way an actor must learn about people, so must a writer. One technique is people watching. There is only so much information your own mind and book-reading can gather without learning more about others. And that is where people-watching comes in.
I don’t mean this in a stalkerish way, I mean simple observation. For instance, in theater, one might have to portray an aged person. At the mall, you may sit on a bench and watch an elderly person, the way they stand, the careful way they walk. Perhaps they use a cane. Perhaps they try to hide their weakness from their family, or they are angry because their life is empty or filled with pain and nobody understands. But just observation and a little imagination will put one inside the mind of that elderly person. Then, on stage, one can access that information and become that person convincingly.
Writing about people, the same process is necessary. One cannot convincingly write about an elderly person without taking their history into consideration, without knowing the person you are writing. Perhaps the person has arthritis. Perhaps they are missing their recently departed spouse. Perhaps they are losing their faculties. Figure out about when they might have been born, and examine what the world would have been like when they were growing up and went to work. One must be able to understand the background and feelings and motivations of the person one wants to portray or the character will be flat and one-dimensional. And each character must be different from every other character that is in the scene, the story, the book. One character’s reaction to a car accident, say, will be completely different from the other’s. One may focus on the financial loss, one on the emotional situation, one may focus on retaliation or become forever afraid of riding in cars. Each person needs their own personality and character, and without understanding others, there is no way to draw that from inside oneself.
Think about your favorite book. Chances are the characters are well-defined and strong and remain true to their backgrounds and experiences. In “Jane Eyre,” for example, Jane remains true to her own moral code, no matter the difficulties and no matter what crosses her. This is what makes the challenges that come along so compelling and what make her trials so emotive. She could have escaped all of the difficulties in the book by not being who she is, by pretending and playing along with others in authority over her, but she chooses to fight and struggle to remain true to her morals and that is what makes the story. Without that strong character, there would have been no story. Jane would have buckled under her aunt’s harshness, and become a meek, servile poor-relation in her aunt’s home like so many in her circumstances in that time period, and that would have been no story at all.
So when people watching, there is no such thing as wasted time. Every person out there is an individual with their own motivations and lives and that means there is an endless pool of characteristics and life to watch and learn from. A trip to a mall or park or even a bus ride, trip to a coffee shop, or simply standing on a street corner can be enriching and may provide just the spark you want for the character you are writing.
If you haven’t tried this technique before, mindful people-watching is an excellent learning strategy to improve your writing. And, as an added bonus, all this people watching could make you a deeper, more sympathetic, understanding person as well.
(For more inspiration, see my first inspiration post on Dreams and Archetypes!)