People-Watching with Purpose: Twenty Tips

I’m a huge fan of people-watching. The more we watch, listen to, and try to understand real people, the better we’re able to get inside the heads of our characters. 

I wrote earlier this week about the mix-and-match art of character creation and how you can collect details from friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, and strangers. Once you’ve collected a nice selection of show-stopping specifics, you can play around with them the way you might play around with a Mr. Potato Head, popping in different eyes, glasses, financial crises, psychological profiles, crazy relatives, and so on.

People-watching can yield other types of inspiration as well. It’s a fantastic way to get past first draft plot snags and a rich source of ideas for complications and surprises and…well, you get the idea.

The next time you need to replenish your pool of creative ideas, take yourself someplace with people, grab a latte, and enjoy some quality time with your idea notebook. Here’s a list of people-watching possibilities to get you started—use these as a jumping-off point, if you’d like, but above all pursue the details that inspire. Enjoy!

Twenty People-Watching Tips

  1. Choose a location your character would normally frequent and observe the people there—or choose a location your character wouldn’t normally frequent and observe.
  2. Choose a crowded location for your people watching foray: a busy shopping mall, a fairground, a festival, a city street…or pick an isolated spot away from crowds and craziness.
  3. Choose a noisy location, like a concert or McDonald’s play place…or pick a spot that’s quiet. How does the noise level affect different individuals?
  4. Take a ride: people-watch on a bus or train.
  5. Look for people who look out of place. What is it that makes them stand out? Their physical appearance—cleanliness, type of clothes, age, gender, ethnicity? Or is it something more subtle, like the way they stand or fidget or look around? Capture the details.
  6. Look for people who fit in. Why do they “fit”?
  7. Identify emotions: pay attention to nuances of facial expression and body posture.
  8. Apply a stereotype: using your first impressions, identify people who (at first glance) fit stereotypes such as ditz, brain, druggie, geek, theater lover, popular kid, overbearing father, grumpy teacher, harried mother.
  9. Got some stereotypes in your line of sight? Good. Now identify what physical traits made you jump to the stereotypic interpretations.
  10. Flip the stereotypes: imagine how the real person might be completely different from the stereotype you just assigned. Look for surprises and contradictions.
  11. List what different people are doing. Interpret their actions, assigning both an obvious motive—he’s parking the car so he can go grocery shopping—and a less obvious motive—he’s parking the car because he’s evading the police.
  12. Now assign the most outrageous motives you can imagine.
  13. Imagine what criminal act each person could commit. What would drive them to that act?
  14. Search for relationships: discover how people relate to each other. What gives away peoples’ connections?
  15. Search for tensions. What relationships might be wearing thin? What are the signs?
  16. Search for happy interactions. What are the signs?
  17. Eavesdrop on arguments. What body language goes with it? Do they try to disguise the disagreement?
  18. Write down what people are saying: turns of speech, dialect, word choice, unusual conversation topics.
  19. Notice physical characteristics of voice: high, low, throaty, too loud. Take notes on any that inspire.
  20. Observe how different people interact with their environment. What bothers them? What do they enjoy? How much do they try to control the world around them?

I’m sure you have some creativity-inspiring questions to add. I’d love to hear them!


The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know -

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. Kate says

    This makes me want to go out and people watch right now with notebook in hand. Too bad I'm reading your post at 3 AM. Oh well, inspiration will have to wait until morning. Thanks for the awesome post!

  2. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Kate–Hey, maybe that's another for the list, 3 AM observations :). Thanks for stopping by!

  3. dirtywhitecandy says

    Great list – I did quite a lot of these already but there are new ones here I hadn't thought of. I'm off to tweet!

  4. Rebecca Kiel says

    Great list! Sitting back with a tea and a notepad on which to write sounds like a good way to spend an afternoon! People are so interesting to watch.

  5. Cheryl Reif says

    Roz: Thanks! And thanks for the tweet. This was a fun post to write.

    Rebecca: Thank you :D. It makes me want to blow off my work this Friday afternoon and practice my own tips. Maybe tomorrow…I could use some creative refueling :)

  6. Jacqvern says

    Very interesting post.

    Though I would not recommend to go watch people at 3 AM, except with bodyguards or some big dogs as a company 😀

    Thank you for the list :)

  7. PW.Creighton says

    Exceptional post! 'Real life is stranger than fiction' as the saying goes. Very useful tips for sleuthing and for character development. Just mind where you choose to observe and play anthropologist/author.

  8. Karen @ Scobberlotch says

    Great list. I especially like #14. Amazing how a small gesture will give someone away.

  9. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Karen~I know! When I started looking for the physical clues to how people feel about themselves, the situation, or each other, I feel like it made a HUGE difference in my writing. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Patrick says

    Hi Cheryl,

    I do love people-watching, and it can definitely inspire my prose. I also love people-eavesdropping, although I feel a bit guilty about that.

    The Mr. Potato Head is a perfect analogy!


  11. SweetMarie83 says

    These are really great people-watching prompts. I love people-watching – I think it's great to have one of the few professionals where we get to do that, and eavesdrop, as part of our living lol.

  12. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Marie–I'm so glad you found these useful! Yep, gotta love being a writer :)

  13. says

    Admiring the persistence you put into your site and in depth information you present. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

    • says

      Hi, and thanks for such a nice comment! Blogging is definitely time-consuming, and feedback like yours makes it all worthwhile. Thanks for making my week :)!