When I first tapped into my writing capabilities, I was eleven. I had a grand imagination to pull from and enough time to create endless, timeless, fictional stories. People watching wasn’t anywhere on my agenda.

The older I got, the less I felt that inspiration. With age comes responsibility – as we all know. My brain became muddled by the many things of adulthood, such as starting a career, handling relationships, and paying bills. My focus shifted from creating stories to making a living.

So, when I now have time to sit down and write, I have the hardest time. I’ll stare at a blank piece of paper for hours on end and have nothing to account for except lost time.

In school, we had classes that focused on writing about little moments. They didn’t have to be full stories. Instead, they were a piece of time – whether it was fictional or not – that would pull a reader into that small moment. This is known as flash- or micro-fiction. Both, I specialize in. They are the genres of writing I sincerely look forward to.

But even these leave me with nothing. So, I knocked on my head and tried everything I could to inspire myself. I tried new things, watched some movies, read other stories, tried various locations, switched between pen and paper and laptop – everything. And something stuck: People watching.

What Makes People Watching an Art?

people-boarding-trolley-new-orleans-people watching
Watching people get on and off the New Orleans trolley, while also snapping some photos for my Instagram, helped me capture this moment for a later piece of writing.

Just like anything else creative, people watching involves expanding your mind and analyzing the details. It’s a technique of sorts – knowing how to watch without creeping someone out, dissecting the very being of a person based on their clothing and body movements, and absorbing every little detail for later use.

Many think people watching is exactly that, sitting around and watching people. While the actual act of people watching is that, it is also an art that requires prior knowledge, psychology being one of the most helpful.  A woman’s left pinky constantly digs and scratches at her thigh; does that mean she has an itch? Perhaps it’s a “tell” or an unconscious move of hers when she’s agitated. How can that kind of little detail be incorporated into your own character? What is making her tick? Is it because she’s waiting for her coffee? Maybe she’s with a friend who won’t stop talking; maybe it’s work gossip or drama the woman rather not participate in, or maybe the friend speaks about sleeping around and the woman has recently found her husband has been unfaithful.

Suddenly, just by understanding the psychology behind a nervous tick, such as the scratching of her thigh, you’ve discovered a little piece of a human being. It’s not just a woman standing in the same coffee shop as you; it’s a woman with a life, a story.

I’m Not A Psychology Major; How Can I Get Better?

If you haven’t taken a class in psychology – you don’t need to. There are various ways to be better at people watching without spending money on classes. I’ve compiled a list of a few things that have helped me. Keep in mind, I’m no expert. These are just things that truly did help me without spending any money.

#1. Google It

I apologize if this is a bit on-the-nose and common sense, but it is the first place you should start. The internet is vast a filled with different articles that explain why people do the things they do. I mean, you’re reading this article, so you’re already a third of the way there! Here are some articles I find particularly useful:

The Art of People Watching by Cody Delistraty

In this compelling article, Cody explains the history of the “People Watcher” and the art behind it. I love this article for its history, and I highly recommend it if you’re wanting some more background information.

10 People Watching Methods | How to People Watch by Josh Rueff

This article is particularly helpful if you’re looking for a more detailed list of “how-to” guidelines for people watching. Josh also goes into some of the various methods that can be used to not feel like you’re a complete stalker.

People Watching: Social, Perceptual, and Neurophysiological Studies of Body Perception by Kerri Johnson and Maggie Shiffrar

I actually just came across this book recently, and I haven’t been able to read all of it yet, but if you’re looking for something that’s more substantial and scientific, this is a perfect example. If you’re wanting to dive deeper into psychology, this is a very interesting read.

#2. Read or Watch About Murderers

I know this may not be everyone’s cup-o-tea, and I know it sounds a little bizarre – but the studies that have been done on murderers and why they did what they did are, in my opinion, monumentally helpful. Even though I wasn’t going people watching to find a murderer, watching TV shows like Criminal Minds and watching how they analyze the murderer into a human being, learning his or her ticks and tells, helped me get a more clear idea of the types of things to look further into.

This is definitely a more fun way to get some learning done. Just turn on Netflix and watch Criminal Minds. There are tons of documentaries on Netflix, too, however, besides Criminal Minds, if you’d rather watch something more factual. If you don’t have Netflix, try YouTube. I will provide some video options, in case you don’t have access to Netflix or Cable. You will need internet, however. So, try finding a Starbucks or rest stop with free WiFi, if you don’t have an internet connection.

Criminal Minds on Netflix

Not only is this one of my favorite shows (because Reed), but this show deals with the BAU or Behavioral Analysis Unit. In every episode, the BAU investigates different murders, finding the murderer by analyzing behavior. This show helped me develop my people watching skills because they heavily look at the details of a human being and certain background pieces that make that person up.

YouTube Search: “The Science Behind Human Behavior”

Because there were so many psychology videos on YouTube, I decided to provide the keyword search link for you to browse all those videos. Some touch on the science of trust and mistrust, some touch on body language, and some videos are textbook. It’s all up to your personal preference.

TED Talk: “What Happens In Your Brain When You Pay Attention?” by Mehdi Ordikhani-Seyedlar

A big part of people watching is being able to pay attention. In this TED Talk, Mehdi discusses the science behind being attentive, and how to train yourself to be more focused. I find this video interesting and useful for both people watching and just daily activities. Being more attentive can lead to more valuable education and relationships, so I highly recommend checking this video out.

#3. Watch Those Close to You, First

I personally believe you can’t be great at people watching if you don’t even know your family’s or friends’ ticks and tells, first. There were a lot of things I didn’t even realize about my parents that I did once I actually started examining them. I kept notes about them on my phone, too. Those who are close to you will be the most influential people in your writing. It makes sense they would be your “test subjects” of sorts, starting out. Ask them questions, too. Learn about how they grew up. Did anything traumatic happen in their lives? Ask your friends what makes them self-conscious. Why do they wear what they wear? Because you know these people, you have a good reason to start these conversations, whereas with strangers it would be crossing a line and unwarranted.

When you master this, then it’s time to move on to strangers. Keep in mind, you can no longer ask questions. Now, you are the one with all the answers. From their body movements and your research, you should be able to have a clearer idea of what may be going on in their head.

OK, But How Does Any of This Relate to My Writing?


artist-painting-new-orleans-people watching
Watching this artist paint and comparing the style of his paintings to his demeanor and clothing helped me decipher who he was as a performer and who he might be when he went home and was alone – something I pulled inspiration from for a later story.

If you’re a writer, then – like me – you’re always searching for inspiration. People watching is a phenomenal way to take your writing to the next level. Why? People Watching is the way of analyzing people in their natural or unnatural environments. By studying others, you can create more realistic characters. The more human your characters are, the easier it will be to give them a backstory and make decisions for their futures.

Why should characters be the main focus of your stories? Isn’t plot more important? K.M. Weiland of Mythic Scribes wrote:

“…character is the heart of story. What good is a killer plot without the actors who bring it to life? Stakes only matter insofar as there are people to gain or suffer by them. Readers relate to stories through the characters.”

Having great character – characters that readers can latch onto – will allow your story to be more intricate and real, even if it takes place in a far-off land. Analyzing real people will help you create “real” characters.

How Can I Remember Character Traits For Later?

My favorite way to remember people is to photograph them. I love catching people in unguarded moments. Of course, if you take photos of others and plan on sharing them publicly, be sure to ask their permission. If you’re not comfortable with photographing others, the most simple way to remember character traits for later use is to store them in a notebook.

On my iPhone, in the Notes App, I keep a separate folder specified for “Characters”. In it, I have a particular note where I type/jot down anything I think might be interesting for a later story character.

This works the same for Plot and Setting. Taking photos and storing them in a note of a place you’d like to include in a story is a great idea. I like using the Notes App on my iPhone because it will also sync to my iCloud and I can see everything on my laptop when I write. If you don’t have an iPhone, there are multiple applications out there that will do the same thing, or go old-school and use a journal. I do both because sometimes writing things down on paper allows my brain to process what I saw a bit more, creating better imagery in my descriptions.

‘Til Next Time…

That’s all I’ve got on this topic, for now. Thank-you so much for reading, and I hope this inspired you to become a better people watcher. I hope you get some great stories out of it too! In case you don’t know, this is the first article in a series of mine called “A Writer’s Dialogue”. This will be a continuing series throughout the year, so be sure to look out for the next article.

If you have a topic you’d like me to touch on, always feel free to leave me a comment or shoot me an email. I, of course, write this content for you, so I want to make sure what I’m putting out is useful. Definitely let me know in the comments if you liked this article or have anything to add!