How To Add a Productive Element To People-Watching
Writers can hone their observational skills and pluck material.
A woman I know who lost most of her sight once told me that everyone has what she called a “giveaway.” A tip-off to clue her in that they were there before they’d announced themselves. One person has a heavy walker, another is always doused in cologne, some people just have big mouths, she said, and they’re always yapping. They reveal themselves before too long.
It’s a useful character exercise to think about people you know or encounter in daily life with that lens in mind. Is someone always brushing their hair back with a finger comb? Someone else idly buttoning and unbuttoning the top of their shirt? I remember a guy from college who always had big headphones around his neck but seemingly never up to his ears, as though they were just a prop.
People-watching is typically a fun and light pastime (as is eavesdropping), but it can also be useful, too, for writers, when employed in daily life. I once met a butcher who was invariably prying flecks of meat from between his teeth with a toothpick. Spearing, chiseling, scraping. Always cleaning, even during conversations. It must’ve been so habitual, the constant tasting and flossing throughout this days, he no longer even realized he was doing it. It was compelling to imagine the whole flight path of the habit — the practical but private action creeping incrementally into more public settings. While the flossing is perhaps not a socially graceful behavior, I came to understand those meaty vestiges of his day as testaments to his mastery: how devotion to a craft often leaves less for other zones of life.
The next time you’re people-watching, do so with a net. Training your mind to capture idiosyncratic mannerisms can be a way to collect seed details for future characters and a means of becoming more discerning generally. I haven’t seen Richie in years, but I still imagine him sitting in his chair, talking to his customers and oh so close to loosening that last stubborn scrap of beef.