People Watching 101: Make Your Characters Leap Off the Page

I grew up in New York City. Rode the subway to and from high school. I was a huge reader, and aspiring writer, so these train rides gave me time for both.

And a huge opportunity to observe people.

When you're locked within a sardine can inside a tunnel beneath the city, you have the luxury of people watching. No one is going anywhere, and most are reading, sleeping or daydreaming--giving you the perfect chance to stare. Unobtrusively, of course.

Here are a few things to take note of when opportunity strikes:

1. Features & Description. When you're sitting alone at the computer, it can be difficult to conjure up a new character. Sure, you can scroll through internet photos, but a real, live person is much easier to describe. You're seeing the whole individual, not just a head shot.

Compare their height and build to those around them. Note the style and fit of their clothes. What their hairstyle (or lack thereof) seems to say about them. How exactly would you describe the tip of that man's nose, that nearly touches his upper lip? Or the elegant line of that woman's neck?

2. Facial Expression. There's nothing like watching a smile "live". Noting how the eyes crinkle up. Whether they allow their teeth to be seen or not. And if they're scowling, they say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile. That means there's a lot more going on in someone's expression than just the shape of their mouth. Forehead, cheeks, eyebrows, eyelids, chin--they all play a part in revealing an individual's mood.

Spend time in a public place, watching facial expressions, and try to gauge the mood of different people. What is it exactly that gives you the impression someone is worried? How did you guess that man is full of pent-up anger? These are the nuances to note and transfer to your manuscript.

For much more on this, check out the links on my facial expression article, one of my most popular posts.

3. Body Language. Like facial expression, this is best observed "live". Some people used their physicality to intimidate. Others pull within themselves so as not to be noticed.

When watching people at a distance, try to identify the gestures and postures that tell you what you can't hear. How do you know those women are disagreeing? What makes you believe that woman is flirting? What are the details that made you guess those businessmen don't like each other?

Be alert for inconsistencies, as well. Someone smiling as they talk, but with a white-knuckled grip on their briefcase, for instance. A couple holding hands, while the woman looks longingly at someone's baby. There are stories everywhere you look.

For much more on this, check out the links on my body language article.

Exercise: Take some time this week to observe people. You might be in waiting rooms, watching other drivers at traffic lights, waiting in airports, or attending large meetings or church gatherings. Have a notebook available to record your impressions.

Get in the habit of being a close observer of people every day. What you actually see will be far more varied and compelling on the page, than what you make up.

Willing to give it a try?


  1. Thank you! Love your blog idea, by the way!


  2. What a great idea! While I do tend on observing those around me, my mind ends up cluttered with potential errands I have to run, so this will be a good guideline for me to start out with. :)

  3. *intend, having a bit of a sticky keyboard situation, *snorts

  4. Just think of the writing ideas you'll get from the supermarket checkout line!


  5. I got some seriously good story potential when I worked as a pizza delivery chick, I must say ;)

  6. That's my husband's second job, though he's not a writer. Maybe I should tag along sometimes. . .

    In April, people celebrate "Take Your Daughter/Son to Work Day". I think I'll institute a "Take Your Character To Work Day".




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