To Observe Is To Understand

As writers we must be observant, perceptive, and we must question everything. Why does someone act a certain way? Is it their past? Perhaps this is the first time they’ve ever acted in a certain manner. What was their childhood like? What were their friends and family like? Did they have any pets? Have they lost any loved ones? How old were they? How old was the deceased when they passed? Along with many others that make people who they are.

If we don’t ask questions such as these, we end up with characters that readers don’t find interesting, and they can’t relate to. People’s past is what makes them unique; what gives them personality, and what makes them flawed. Now, of course, readers don’t always want to know every minuscule detail of every character. That can get boring and throw the story off track. I mean, who really cares if the character had a bunny for two weeks when he or she was six. Unless, of course, that has caused them to develop an unhealthy attachment to bunnies.

What I’m getting at here is that writers need to be observant. I’ve always had the idea of doing character studies. I want to go to a public place–likely a coffee shop, or someplace where you’ll find all types of people–and ask random people questions about their past. Of course, I would tell them I’m a writer, and I don’t need their full name or anything of the sort. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable. But, sometimes I wonder what makes people who they are today? What struggles did they have to go through to get to where they are? Did the lawyer have to pay his or her own way through law school? Did he or she have wealthy parents? Did he or she have to go door to door selling knives? Did he or she have to sell drugs? (ironic, no?) There are endless possibilities as to what struggles people have had to face in the past that shape who they are?

And, if I’m not able to ask questions, I like to just sit and watch people. How do people react to certain situations? Does the person who cuts off someone in traffic seem to be in an emergency situation? Is he or she late for work? Does the person who got cut off react in a certain unusual manner? What about the man and woman walking down the sidewalk? Are they dating? married? engaged? Are they both employed? Do they live together? Do they seem generally happy? Perhaps they’re brother and sister.

What do you think? Do you study people? Do you watch watch? Do you think it’s necessary to watch other people to construct three-dimensional characters? What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever seen or heard while watching people?

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5 thoughts on “To Observe Is To Understand

  1. I often study people, particularly the elderly and wonder about their lives. I also look at graves and wonder about the story behind the headstone. There are millions of untold stories out there in this world we live in. 🙂

  2. Oh wow, do you really do that? I wouldn’t have the guts to go up to complete strangers and ask a question. I guess us Brits are a bit cynical. I would probably get told to go away and be told I was a nutter lol 😦


  3. I know what you are talking about. I am a constant people watcher. Dane Cook does this bit about how he loves to watch a couple argue in public. This happen to me just the other day. I was at the grocery story and this couple were having an argument and it was fascinating I was following them around the story because the whole exchange from the words they used to the body language and the silence was so interesting to me. I hope they worked it out, but they have now idea what a lesson they gave me for my writing.

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