“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
Henry David Thoreau
Almost four years ago, I stood in an apartment parking lot with twenty-three strangers from all over the country. We made awkward conversation, silently sizing one another up and wondering how people so different would ever survive a semester together.
That summer was the best of my life with some of the most unique personalities I’ve ever had the privilege to know. In class, we studied personalities, strengths and weaknesses, character, opinions, and worldview. I knew how each person reacted in the midst of passion, anger, joy, or grief. I knew struggles and victories. Our common denominator was a desire to lead and a heart for the Lord.
And I had to know my characters the same way.
Through these people and because of that summer, I had ideas to propel me into my first book. My characters took on the physical traits and personality of one of my roommates. My supporting characters share names in common with some of the guys.
The best characters are the ones the reader can relate to as a close friend, soul mate, enemy, or victim. The best stories emerge from the people, places, and experiences around us.
Spending night and day with these people for two months taught me the beautiful complexity of people’s stories. It also taught me the depth of people. The best stories come from people watching, from intimately engaging in life, and embracing the good and bad.
As I work on my current WIP, I watch the people around me. I study emotional reactions, goofy quirks, language patterns, clothing style, facial expressions, and character. Slowly, my characters take shape on the page. Fair warning: if you are in my vicinity, one of your odd habits may make it into my book.
As writers, we tend to isolate. Or at least some of us do. We are content to people watch without interacting. Big problem. As Thoreau said, writing is flat if the writer has not lived.
Get out of your chair. Abandon your laptop. Spend time with friends and family. Sit at your favorite park or Starbucks. Take a note pad and record people’s conversations. Listen to the words they use, how they form sentences. Interact with the guy behind the counter or the people walking their dogs. Engage them in conversation.
Live and live well. Abundantly and fully. Engage with people intimately, not for the sake of a story or character, but because every person we cross paths with has a story that can teach us something about life and the Lord and yes, even writing.
People are weird and quirky and complex. We all have different personalities and reactions. People are full of surprises and opinions. Fashion your characters that way, too. God created people in His own image. Fall in love with them. Embrace the uniqueness. Embrace your uniqueness. Then write with eyes wide open, heart full, and a mind overflowing with memories to make your stories rich.
Have you people watched lately?
8 Replies to “The Power of People Watching”
Great post and such good advice – I love to people watch and can spend hours over one cup of coffee or glass of wine, just observing and maybe writing.
I love that writing is actually interactive. So glad to meet a fellow people-watcher!
I’ve always loved Paul’s idea about the Body of Christ where God made us all different to serve a specific purpose in The Body. I love people who are different from me for this reason. As you mention, the best stories come from great characters. Those are the ones I want to read again and again, just so I can “hang out” with the people. Great advice!!!
I think that is one of my favorite passages of scripture. I love that the Lord created every person to fit a specific calling and role, especially those in the body of Christ. Once again, He is the master Creator, and I just get the benefit of taking what He already created to write stories to encourage.
How fun to see a familiar t-shirt show up in those pictures…I loved my time at FFI as well! And you’re so right–it was a great place to observe and learn more about others and their stories. 🙂
Ashley! We need to connect! I love meeting people from FFI. I’m so excited to meet another writer who shares that experience.
Good stuff, Kariss. Thanks for putting it together. I’ll forward to my critique group.
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