Saturday, November 20, 2010

Curiosity as Research or Just Plain Nosy?

RainForest Pickings # 4

As a people watcher, I like to observe how individuals interact and react, in groups and on their own. Part of this interest is tied to my writing and the desire to create memorable characters. The other part is purely intellectual. Why do they walk that way, why do they look threatening, why are they dragging that dog, and why do my observations of these individuals nearly always cause them to turn and look at me?

‘People watching’ is a time-honoured pastime in Paris, where small tables encroach on the sidewalk, forcing the passers-by to walk more slowly. In the small bistros and literary cafés people sit for hours, talking and watching others go by. If the weather permits, an outside table is the preferred location. The term ‘flâneur’ originated in Paris, referring to those who observe daily life in the city with more intensity than the average person. The various meanings of the word are stroller, lounger, saunterer, or loafer which comes from the French verb flâner, meaning "to stroll". Strolling is another way to watch and observe what makes us human.

When I’m writing, the knowledge gained from my observations helps me determine attributes for my characters. I need to know how a character looks if he’s strolling down the sidewalk, whether his gait is loping, long strides or mincing steps due to a possible injury. Is the person swaggering from too much drink or walking like a bodybuilder with every muscle under control? Are the shoulders bent from hard work or age? What is the overall image of that person -- active, sloppy, or a well-dressed suit? What props do they carry -- briefcase, skateboard, groceries, baby in sling, dog on leash? Is anything unusual about the location or that person being in that location? Sometimes it’s the circumstances -- why is that anxious looking person over there walking down a remote stretch of highway at dusk, without a jacket or backpack? Such observations become story ideas, or help with characterization.

One important trait is needed for this type of observation. Unobtrusiveness.

Keep some form of writing pad or media tool to record interesting facts or any ideas that may come to mind. Try to be surreptitious as this sort of activity seems to alert unknown sensors in the target, causing the aforementioned turning of the head. Staring blatantly is verboten.

Various aspects seem to contribute to actions which certain types of people exhibit. Location is one determining factor. If one knows the location and feels comfortable, the behaviour is different than when the location is new or threatening or unknown. Companions also affect the way a person may act in a given situation--think mob behaviour, preschoolers, or a group of teenage girls. Group dynamics usually reveal a leader, a backup supporter, a jester, a few sheep, and sometimes, an independent thinker.

As writers, we must observe to learn how to portray the range of human emotions in words. By recording the specific details, we can use that information to describe how a character might respond in a given situation. We see the effect, then we must determine what caused it.

Look around you -- there’s always something going on. Just keep your distance and don’t be too obvious. Pretend you’re a historian.


  1. Yes! You nailed it. My wife is always saying that I'm nosy. She doesn't seem to appreciate my interest in wanting to know about others and see what their lives are like. I'm not nosy, I'm "know/see".

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

    1. I like that translation, Lee! I was one of those kids who asked too many questions. My dad told me so.

      Glad you stopped by to read this. Much appreciated.

  2. Awesome article! I'm longing for a Paris sidewalk cafe right about now...
    I tried to private email you the following, but you don't have your address anywhere I can find least not on this new computer, but you'd think with gmail all my contacts would transfer and I feel like I've emailed you before...anyway.

    Hi D.G,
    I know this isn't my post,(I'm answering your post at the A-Z) but I feel like we've made a connection, so I thought I'd answer. Where did you see the 100 word limit? That has NEVER been discussed among the co-hosts at all. Seriously! I re-read this post again, and it just says keep it short. Last year we suggested, SUGGESTED, that perhaps 300-400 words was what we meant by short. It's still your blog, and you can write WHATEVER YOU WANT, and it can be as long as you want.

    As to the category thing -- now that has been a long debate. LONG DEBATE. We are doing it because it was THE number one complaint that people wanted to know what kind of blog they were going to. So we've given in and given them a CHOICE to put a category after their blog name. Most of the co-hosts are NOT using a category, because frankly, we don't fit into them, even though there are at last count about 24 to choose from. For example, I'm a writer. But I don't write much about writing. I just write. I write poems, I write fiction, I write personal stories, I write out my frustrations. When I see the category of "writer" I think of the people who are promoting their books (not that there's anything wrong with that) and their focus is on either teaching writing, or connecting with writers, or offering critiques, etc. I don't fit into that category AT ALL. For me, most of the fun of the challenge is, "What kind of blog is this next one going to be?"

    I hope that clears up some of your concerns. Feel free to ask more questions. I'm here, and the info@ email is my puppy to feed and water, and my personal email is in the sidebar at Life is Good, as well as the "contacts" tab at the A-Z. I check it more than the info@...

    Tina @ Life is Good

    1. I emailed you, Tina. And replied on the A to Z Challenge page. I appreciate your response. Now I'm just waiting to find out about a mentoring project. I'll know by mid-Feb.


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