People are damned interesting.  And they’re everywhere. I have yet to get to know someone who doesn’t lend some kind of inspiration or insight into human nature, and the deeper you dig, the more you find.  The good news is that if approached the right way, most people will tell you just about anything you want to know.  In fact, a lot of the time, there’s nothing else most folks would rather discuss than themselves.  If you’re a writer, this is the best asset you have when it comes to character conception and development.

     But there is still something to be said about people in their natural state, when they think no one is watching. Before I even began writing fiction, I did a very creepy thing: I would watch people, listen to them, and jot down what interested me on loose pieces of paper that would ultimately do nothing but clutter my personal space (hey… don’t judge me). Anything that snagged my attention  for more than a millisecond was a worthwhile installation into the volumes of (at the time) utterly useless information.  Sometimes it was interesting dialogue or mannerisms; other times it was a person’s style or charisma, and sometimes, I just liked the way a person looked and made it a personal challenge to see how I could most interestingly and effectively put them on paper. (Some will say that spying is wrong and unethical.  I say that we live in an age where privacy is all but dead and if you don’t want any witnesses, then do it behind closed doors).

     These days, I still do much the same thing and I’m glad that, as pointless as it seemed to be in the past, I always did it. It gave me a lot of practice in people watching ~ something that is essential to writing… but now, I do it with more purpose.

     Last summer, when I was writing The White Room, I once followed a kid in grocery store because I thought that, if I were a vampire, this guy would be the perfect victim. I hung back far enough so as not to draw any attention to myself, of course, but still it was a little weird of me, I know. It turned out to be a valuable experience because it got me into the correct mind frame to write a necessary scene where my main character experienced blood lust for the first time. As I followed the guy around, I noticed things about him that I otherwise would have thought nothing of.  He was in his early twenties and seemed very shifty. Passing him, I could smell the lingering of marijuana which he’d tried to cover up with something minty. He was stoned, which explained his shiftiness. That and the fact that I suspect he may have been considering shoplifting a squirt gun from the toy aisle… but that is neither here nor there.  I ended up using this experience in the book and it is one of my favorite scenes.

     A few houses down from me lives another guy in his twenties. This guy has some of the most unusual habits. For example, he seems to always be looking for a good excuse to take his shirt off. If someone comes to his door, he takes his shirt off and stands in the doorway, literally posing so that all passersby can get a good look at him. When he is out walking his dog, he does it shirtless and is always on the lookout, as if trying to make certain that everyone can see him. He throws a lot of parties and I am often able to overhear some of his conversation with friends. I have determined that this guy is a total narcissist, much like the character I am currently writing, and I have used him more than once as a kind of yardstick for my story.

     I have another neighbor who is a great source of interesting things.  She has about a hundred boyfriends I think, and according to the snippets of conversation I’ve caught between her and her friends, this woman doesn’t know anyone who isn’t struggling with meth addiction. From her, I have learned the ins and outs of the world of meth. Not sure I’ll ever use the information, but I’m certain that at this point, I could probably even make my own meth lab!

    As fun as it is to spy on people though, it’s still a lucrative thing to ask questions.  A writer can spend hours, weeks, and even months agonizing over what a character would or wouldn’t do in a certain situation before realizing that the solution to the problem is really very simple: start asking people. They will tell you.  And if they don’t… well, polish up the binoculars, high-tune your hearing and start paying attention to people. In my experience, everything you need to know about writing believable characters can be found in the people around you. Just be sure to change the names…

  1. Linda Bennett says:

    Although I am not a writer of fiction, I love watching people. Great blog, Jared.

  2. Kim Justesen says:

    My kids still talk about the time I followed a lady around the grocery story for about half an hour. She was SOOO fascinating, and I truly wanted to know what she stocked her fridge with! And then there was the time in a TGI Fridays where I was eves-dropping on a young couple discussing (arguing, actually) their wedding plans, until they realized I was leaning over their direction and the wrapper from a straw struck me in that side of the head.

    I love the fact that my cell phone has a camera so I can secretly snap pictures of unsuspecting people – like the woman on the light rail train who had feathers in her hair and was crocheting plastic grocery bags into reusable shopping bags, or the little girl doing ballet with the shopping cart in a Target store. People are truly amazing! Nice job!

  3. Ariel says:

    I’ve never heard people watching described as creepy except by people who are obsessively self conscious or paranoid, anyway. For me when I was younger, I was constantly taking in other people whenever I went somewhere because I was so cut off from civilization that I was literally window shopping for life. It was my survival instinct, also, to learn everything there was about other people in ways that weren’t obvious. Eventually those conscious cues turned into subconscious formulas, which I used accurately to both evoke and predict the behavior of people whether I knew them or not–and without even the empathy that usually tipped me off. Being on the internet has been very different, because in some ways you get to know people more uninhibited and in other ways there are more filters and a new kind of superficiality. That has both its disadvantages (like not being able to ‘read’ someone’s behavior and body) and its advantages (forcing more learning by gut instinct alone) as a people watcher and socializer.

  4. voodoomother says:

    I have always been a people watcher, I fall a little bit in love with everybody. This person’s eyes, this person’s thoughts, this person’s way of moving my oh my. I have been known to “stalk” for hours, noting details such as the way a cigarette is held, or the way a person moves thier eyes. It’s nuts, especially since the only thing I really write is the stuff that’s in my head…but I gotta say…watching the world around me is far more fun than TV

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