Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Understanding

I don't know if I've been like this my whole life, or if it's something that started somewhere in my adulthood. I'm a people watcher. Some might think I'm quiet and shy, but really, I'm watching.

I watch because I find it fascinating. I want to understand what makes people tick.

If you're a writer, this is a great way to do character research.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about....

I'm sitting in a restaurant and can't help noticing a couple sitting a two tables away. He can't stop smiling, and she doesn't smile much at all. Hmmm. He's doing a lot of the talking. She engages in the conversation, but isn't over the top with the hand motions and giddy smile.

Then I go through a list of possibilities. He's trying to impress her, that's clear. Now is it on a romantic level, or is it some crazy big business opportunity that he is sure he's about to nail?

Giddy smile. I'm thinking romantic.

Hmmm, her nails are seriously manicured, neither on wears a wedding ring, she looks like she tried to dress up and he's in jeans. If this were a business meeting, he would have dressed up for it.

Romantic for sure.

He uses big hand motions as he talks. The smile never leaves his face. She seems interested, but not half as committed. Does she like him? Maybe. She could be a watcher like me who takes time to figure someone out before diving in headfirst.

Or she could be hoping the date will be over soon.

But the dinner takes too long for me to know whether it involved dessert.

And how do I know any of this stuff? I don't. But when I'm writing, I have to give the readers enough impressions that the character's actions tell a story of their own. What is human nature? What makes us believe certain motivations might be involved? If a writer doesn't know the answers, it will never come out in the story.

Sure, we can cheat by planting the reader directly inside the main character's head, but what about all the supporting characters? That's where this whole level of people understanding becomes critical. Recognizing signals and body language that sends messages is part of what makes a story real.

If you're not a people-watcher, try it sometime. Everyone has a story; maybe you can figure some of them out.


Angela Felsted said...

This isn't exactly the same. But I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs between classes when I went to college and noticing that everyone walks on their toes when they take the stairs.

Laura said...

We're all dancers on the inside.

Misha said...

I love people watching.

Once had the unique experience of having a people watcher sitting down across from me. I watched her watching me watching her watching me... Yeah you get the idea.

We also shared a silent amusement at funny people walking past.