1. Alex_Hartman
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    Alex_Hartman Contributing Member

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    People Watchers

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Alex_Hartman, Dec 6, 2008.

    I've heard so many times that writers are people watchers. When you watch people, what are you looking for? I've tried this and I feel like I have no idea what I am doing.
     
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  2. Sonshine
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    Sonshine Senior Member

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    I think it's a natural inclination. I don't look really, I notice!
     
  3. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    It's not really something you can codify. Like an elephant, it's difficult to describe, but instantly recognizable. It may be the way that guy over there carries himself that just lets you know he was the BMOC in college. Or the way that beautiful girl covers her mouth when she laughs that tells you she hasn't gotten over having braces in junior high. Sometimes it's just something behind the eyes.

    Bottom line, if it doesn't do anything for you don't worry about it. Not all things are for all people.
     
  4. jwilder
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    jwilder Member

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    I'm usually drawn to watching people with a definitive presence - or people who are noticeably small presences among larger ones. The "larger than life" personality versus the small, shrinking, or invisible personality. Watching the interactions of those kinds of people is fascinating to me.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Watch for unique characteristics or idiosyncracies, like how the lady in the corner always clears her throat just before she speaks, or how the skinny kid with the baggy clothes and shaved head (a couple days ago, he has a reddish stubble now) is peeling the label off his Mountain Dew and jiggling his foot. Listen to conversations, particulary listening for characteristic phrasin - the old guy with bad teeth starts about every third sentence with, "Yeah, well, ..."

    As you watch, try to think how you would describe the person. Not like a Wanted poster description, but using those characteristicsw that make them stand out as unique.
     
  6. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    I don't tend to watch people because I'm terribly shy and am basically at home alone most of the time, but I do notice particular things about people, especially their apparent mental states, when I'm around them.

    When you watch people you should ask yourself, who is this person? Based on their clothing, what's their job or status? The look on their face--what are they feeling or thinking? The way they talk to people--are they really saying what's on their mind or is there something hidden, and are they outgoing or withdrawn? The way they do things--what's left unsaid in their actions? (For example, somebody throwing something across the room with a snarl on their face speaks volumes, even if they don't say a word.)

    Basically, you just hypothesize about who they are and what they're feeling and thinking, and come up with little stories and ideas in your head. For example, there are always cars coming and going from our new neighbor's house. I sometimes find myself thinking, that must be some kind of commune with all the cars and people who keep coming and going. The other neighbor who has a flagpole and a sports flag erected in the middle of the woods where nobody but us can see it, he must be some sort of sports freak to do something stupid like that. And he spends HOURS blowing leaves when he could just rake them, and when more are just going to fall the next day--must be some kind of neat freak about his yard, too, and he isn't very logical about this (raking would get him some exercise and would probably get it done a lot faster). Every week in Wal-Mart there's an old man sitting on a bench reading a book, the same day every week--is he waiting for his wife to finish shopping? Is that the same book each week, or a different one? How fast does he go through those books? Is he actually there every day and I just don't see him? Does he come to Wal-Mart to read to get away from home because it's hectic there and Wal-Mart is actually more relaxing? Is his home life that lousy right now? Or is he people watching, himself? Etc. etc.

    Basically, people watching just means noticing things and guessing about what they might mean.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i've been a people-watcher from childhood, but never had or have any 'plan' or specific 'goal' in doing it... it's just a natural thing for me to notice people and how they look, sound, act... same as i notice my surroundings, wherever i am... ways of life, nature, buildings, landscape, people, et al., everything i've seen in my life is all stored away in my brain's data bank, ever-available grist for my writer's mill... so, whenever i need an image, or knowledge of someone or something, it's there in my 'files' waiting to be used...
     
  8. Alex_Hartman
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    Alex_Hartman Contributing Member

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    I think I was trying too hard. I guess that I do notice little things about people, but they usually don't stay...consiously at least. Now I wonder if I ever had a character doing something that I saw some random person do with out realizing it...that would be cool. =D
     
  9. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Writers naturally are good observers of the world around them...people, scenes...it doesn't much matter. Here is an example of this unconscious scrutiny that happened to me just last night. This thread made me think about it.

    After receiving an email invitation from a local band, my wife and I went to a new blues & BBQ club in our area to support their gig. The club is in a rundown part of town, but from the outside, it was a very nice looking building with fresh paint, neatly groomed shrubs and good lighting. Even the parking lot was freshly surfaced with recently painted parking spaces. Actually, it looked out of place in this blighted neighborhood.

    When we entered, it seemed a bit more formal than usual for blues venues. A nice looking receptionist, a black woman with an easy smile, met us just inside the entrance and asked if we would prefer the "...tall tables in the bar section..." or a regular table in the dining room. We asked where the live music would be located and she smiled as if we requested something special.

    "C'mon with me. I didn't know the music was public knowledge. The good stuff's in the back room." She headed for a curtained doorway at the far end of the dining area. As we trailed her between a dozen empty tables, I was trying to figure out the meaning of her odd comment and I felt like we were back in the Roaring 20's, sneaking into an old fashioned, backroom "speakeasy".

    The curtains brushed against my shoulder as I stepped down a single stair into the lounge. A couple dozen people, some standing and some sitting, were at most of the tables placed in diagonal rows across the room. Every person in the room was black. They seemed surprised by a white couple entering their domain. All chatter came to a stop and everyone watched as the hostess removed a "Reserved" sign from a four-person table.

    On a small stage in the corner, band members tested their equipment in preparation for the night's music. Two of the band members noticed us and stopped what they were doing to give us hugs and handshakes. It was interesting. When the musicians, also black, demonstrated their friendship with us, all tension immediately ended. People in the room lost interest...or perhaps concern...for our presence and returned to their prior conversations. All but one person, that is. A young man at the table immediately next to us kept glancing at me. We made eye contact several times, always ending in a mutually courteous smile and an acknowledging nod. I must admit, I was not completely at ease with his attention. He wore a sports jersey, perhaps two sizes too large for his tall, slender build. It hung loosely over baggy shorts that hung low on his hips and nearly reached his ankles. The stereotypical gang attire seemed contradictory to his friendly attitude and conservatively coiffed hair.

    Suddenly, he stood and walked right up to me, his hand extended in friendship.

    "Hi. My name's Julius. I'm the owner here. I hope you enjoy the food and music."

    I was surprised by his abrupt greeting, although I was able to hide it with a prompt thanks and complement about the nice facility. Then, the music started, food came and for the next two hours I sat quietly in the corner, watching people react to each other and respond to the music. One long table near the back of the room hosted a small birthday party while a group of ostensibly single women flirted with the receptive singer. Unaware that I was watching, one woman winked at a man who returned the attention...then her male companion returned from the bar with drinks, unaware that his wife or girlfriend was on the prowl. People were interesting.

    While race played a momentary role in the beginning, it was NOT among my primary observations. Rather, I noticed that people reacted to each other and the band in exactly the same way as I have seen in countless other venues. From the tough crowd in "biker bars" to the rich snobs at the "Sky Lounge in Arco Arena" to intimate acoustic gigs in country caf├ęs, people are all the same. Wannabee groupies make it clear that band members are free to "sample the goodies". Music lovers tap their feet or finger tips in perfect rhythm. Frustrated couples argue about home tensions...usually stepping outside when their voices raise enough to bother others. Lonely singles hope to meet that special person who will end their solitary existence. Yes, people are all the same. This new blues club was no different.

    My observations last night will add to my writing-reservoir of experiences, characters and settings to be drawn upon in some future novel.
     
  10. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm surprised how many of you actually do this. I used to (sort of) but I'm over it. I'm running out of interesting people to watch. Only once in a while do I see someone who makes me think "wow, that's original." Most of my 'people watching' is jst being around people and noticing the things they do (or don't do). It's not rocket science.

    Five days a week I go through the same thing: 20 min drive to the train station, where I get to see how people drive. (You're not really a people watcher until you've watched them drive!) There's the guy who goes really slow, creating traffic where there shouldn't be any and ruining everyone's morning. There's the jerk who tries to cut ahead of everyone as if his Honda Civic is a race car. (News flash: A Civic is not a race car.) There's the guy in the SUV tailgating me even though I'm already doing 5mph over the limit. I won't go any faster just for his personal satisfaction, so he might as well back off. There's the nice lady who lets everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) cut in front of her. There's the truck that thinks running you over is the same as merging.

    Then, I get on the train and there's a whole new set of people to watch. There's the guy in shorts and a t-shirt even though it's 30 degrees out. There's the chick who's too insecure to sit next to anyone, so she tries to stand and keeps bumping into people every time the train takes a curve, even though people are constantly offering her a seat. There's the guy with 200lbs of luggage, who just had to go to the airport during rush hour, despite knowing the train is already overcrowded. There's the homeless guy asking for change and the guy selling bootleg DVDs and the guy who looks like he's selling something but I'm not gonna ask. (Remember kids, say NO to drugs.)

    Then I get to school and there's a whole new set of people. In the library I find the people cramming to finish that paper due in *looks at watch* five minutes ago. There's the pack of nerds playing World of Warcraft, the guy surfing YouTube, and the guy typing out overly-long messages on WritingForums :rolleyes:. There's the guy who walks into class twenty minutes late and the professor who pretends he doesn't care... but he does. I can see it in his eyes; every late student hurts his soul.) There's the freshman who won't stop asking questions we all know the answers too.

    That's pretty much all I can think of right now. Don't people watch, people notice. If you look too hard, you'll miss the bigger picture.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not a people watcher because of my writing. I'm not even a people watcher because of my photography. I'm a people watcher because people are interesting.

    I listen to conversations within earshot, because sometimes the fragments themselves tell a story, and because I am fascinated by words and how different people use them.

    I don't stare at people when I'm watching them. People behave differently when they know they are under observation. I'll catch a good look when I turn my head, or I'll watch a reflection in a window or surveillance mirror. Sometimes peripheral vision is enough.

    Sneaky? Maybe. I never use what I see or hear to gain an advantage, though. In fact, I only do that with strangers. Watching someone I already know isn't fun - it just feels wrong.
     
  12. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Critical listening skills are often taught in colleges and business. But the only place I have ever encountered "critical watching" skills was in the military. Recon and snipers learn to watch every detail of interactions between potential targets. Who salutes, who returns the salute...now I know which tiny figure in the distance is the officer, even if he is dressed in civilian clothes. When you see a patrol leaving an enemy camp, how do the soldiers carry their rifle...which ones are prepared...who is confident, frightened or tired...which one's weapon has a sniper scope...who's rucksack is the heaviest -- he's probably carrying the mines.

    As a recon team progresses through the jungle, they can tell when a stream is not far ahead by the change in foliage. Certain ferns and vines are more prevalent near perennial water sources. Even the insect variety and density will change. Slight increase or decrease in light penetrating through the canopy above provides siimilar information. Red soil means something different than dark brown soil. Clusters of dead branches may be the work of humans...how do you tell the difference between man made "nests" and natural animal hutches? Trained observation.

    The Secret Service, another paramilitary organization, uses similar "critical observation" training to prepare agents for protecting the president in close contact with crowds. A hand makes a subtle but unnatural movement...they see it and they are ready to act.

    Artists learn critical observation skills and "critical observation" is taught as part of most "critical thinking" courses, but I have never found any such training as detailed as in the military training programs.

    Critical "watching" skills might be useful to writers.
     
  13. mobious109
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    mobious109 Member

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    I don't think there is really anything to "find" in watching people. That's not saying it's not usefull and fun to boot, but you shouldn't be looking for certian traits in people or you're not really watching them your just thinking to yourself and happen to be staring at somebody.

    I find sometimes the most intesting people are the ones that have nothing paticularly interesting about them. They don't dress different or wear their hair in a fantastic way, but nobody acts the exact same way as anybody else and that facinates me for some reason.
     
  14. Alex_Hartman
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    Alex_Hartman Contributing Member

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    Hmmm...so just notice things? Today I had a substitute in math. My math teacher is usually a little on the messy side; she always has stacks of paper on her desk. The sub cleaned and organized everything. There wasn't a single paper on the desk and she sanitized anything and everything that has a surface-area, even the file cabinet. I think she even went through my teachers desk. I watched her clean all of third hour and I have never seen that happen before. It was a bit intense. Something like that? Odd things you notice (it was hard not to)?
     

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