Things I Learn From People Watching - Why Words Work - Writing Confessions

Writing Confessions: Things I Learn From People Watching

People are fascinating creatures. And just like any fascinating creature, the most curious of us cannot help but watch.

Every writer I know has something voyeuristic deep inside. Not in a creepy way…At least, I hope it isn’t in a creepy way.

To me, it’s more like a childish sense of wonder about people. How they think. What they do. Where they come from and why they’re here.

For a few years I’ve carried around a small leather notebook that I like to call my People Watcher. Whenever I have a spare moment at the bus stop, or the barista is having a hard time pouring out my fifth chai latte, I’ll slip it out of my bag and take a look around me. It takes a second. Maybe two. Then I’ll choose who I want to write about and, well, simply observe.

It’s amazing what you can discover simply by watching someone. A woman in a red coat becomes an impatient friend. The old man who looks half asleep is actually trying to learn English beneath his breath. A group of young lads saunter in and, within a few minutes, you can suss which one is the leader of the pack.

Look a little longer and you’ll pick up on the smaller details. Stooped shoulders. Fidgeting fingers. The criss-crossing of legs. The ticks of life that latch onto people are always on display, for anyone who takes the time to notice.

Of course, there is also an element of respect to be learned from people watching. Whenever a conversation turns to darker subjects, I will switch targets. I never try to learn their names, nor any personal details. In a strange way, when you get into the habit of people watching, you’ll begin to see public spaces as galleries. Some pictures are meant for you. Some are better left unseen.

Now and then, when I am stuck for inspiration, I will open up my People Watcher and re-read the entries. Nameless people greet me, without ever knowing I was there. Hints of stories, flickers of character, can be found within the pages.

Yes, people are fascinating creatures. When you take time to watch them, you can discover all sorts of wonderful things.

Do you observe others to inspire your writing? Have you witnessed anything that inspired your own writing?Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @ERHollands!

3 thoughts on “Writing Confessions: Things I Learn From People Watching

  1. Oh yes I love people watching! I live next to a park and sometimes I stand at my living room window and watch all the people walking past, it’s really fun 🙂


  2. I haven’t done a lot of people watching. However, it sounds like a great tool when I need inspiration. I’m bad with describing characters; I’m too much skimming the surface when it comes to creating depth with my characters. This could force to look deeper and create a compelling backstory.


  3. I very occasionally do a word portrait of someone who looks interesting, and I gave that trait to my main character in my first published novel, Pride’s Children.

    I should probably do more, You’ve reminded me that she has this trait; I can see I should find places to use it in the other two volumes of the trilogy.

    Written portraits also have the capacity to become plot twists, if someone finds what someone else has written, whether it is the subject of the portrait or someone who knows the subject – or someone who is intrigued by either the subject OR the writer. So many possibilities from one thought.


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