The Story Inspiration Series: People Watching

This ‘Story Inspiration Series’ will take an in-depth look at all of the sources that have helped me generate ideas for titles, stories, characters, scenes and dialogue.

Inspiration really can come from anywhere, and although some of these ideas may not be new to you or indeed the world of blogging, they might help you think of them a different way. I will explain the sources, provide links and explain how you can use the source to generate your own ideas.

I hope they help you, and if they do please let me know in the comments!

The Art of People Watching

I’m currently doing an online course with Future Learn on ‘How to Write Fiction’. Very early on we were encouraged to go out and pay a little more attention to the people around us, in order to find inspiration to start creating characters; characters of course, being the foundations of our stories.

I experimented with this by taking my notebook to a local coffee shop in Taunton, and I have to admit I was a little sceptical that this would work for me. It seems a bit creepy to sit in a corner somewhere studying strangers and scribbling in a little notepad…

It’s surprising though, the things you notice about people when you take the time to look: the clothes they wear, funny phrases they use, hairstyles, body language… the list is endless.


If People Watching Isn’t For You!

If you feel that watching people in real life and writing about them is shameful or weird or it makes you nervous, use YouTube.

There are actually YouTube videos where people have filmed the public passing by. Seriously.

The great thing about this though is you can dip in and out in your own time and pause when you see someone or something that catches your eye. Many of the videos on YouTube just have the sounds of the town or city buzzing about in the background rather than some annoying music track. This is fab because you can get really immersed in the feel of the surroundings.

To get started, check out this one in London, this one in Lower Manhattan and this one in China.


So, What Am I Looking Out For?

In my notebook, I separate my notes into tabbed sections. These are names, language, appearance, backgrounds and traits.

The important thing to remember is that you aren’t trying to create one specific character at this point, you are simply listening out or watching for the little details that stand out to you. These will be different for everyone.

The point of this is to keep note of these important details, which can then be used to flesh out a character later on. You might refer back to your notes later on and add further details.


Making connections

Sometimes, I will see or hear something that isn’t interesting in and of itself, but that triggers some connecting thoughts that will lead you to an idea.

For example, in the coffee shop I overheard someone talking about a person called Jonathan Smiley. This is actually quite an interesting name anyway, but it got me thinking about how names can be used to portray personality in fiction.

I wrote this observation down and brainstormed a few surnames that a policeman in a crime novel might have that matches their behaviour: DI Waites (cautious, nervous), DI Driver (pushy, leader) and DI Grey (questionable morals, difficult to figure out).


The mundane

It is often the boring, everyday things that make a character or scene believable to a reader. The everyday things give your story depth because they are easily recognised by the reader, who can then easily buy into what you are saying.

In my notebook I wrote a couple of observations about everyday occurrences: an old lady talking the ear off a neighbour who was clearly bored; a dishevelled, possibly homeless man collecting cigarette butts off the pavement;  a couple happily walking arm in arm, wearing matching knitted bobble hats.

When observing, make sure you take note of the routines people take part in, especially if you are observing behaviour in the setting you will actually write about.


Use your senses

When out and about people watching, make sure to also take note of what you feel, hear, see and smell. This will help you start to pay attention to your settings and might even spark an idea for where your story will take place.

For example, in the videos linked above, what sounds in the city do you notice? What smells are likely to be dominant for the people you are observing and are they pleasant or unpleasant?


Remember BIAS

Everything you write is framed precisely by the way YOU see and interpret the world. Everyone makes biases about what they see, whether they realise it or not. It’s really interesting to consider what you assume to be true about the people you observe.

Do you have a pre-conceived idea about a person’s wealth, their job, where they are headed to?

Just be aware that you will undoubtedly transfer this bias into your writing. That’s ok, as long as you take care not to offend.


Get Inspired: An Exercise

  • Click on one of the YouTube links in above and pause when you see someone who stands out to you.
  • Write a 200-300 word story based on a person you see and include details like: physical appearance, body language, what job you think they do, where they are going and what you think their name is.
  • Feel free to pop it in the comments and we can discuss your ideas!

For example, during a video this man caught my eye because it stood out to me that he was wearing a pink hair tie:

The story I wrote about him is here. Be kind, I’m learning!

Keith could smell the putrid, musty stench of week-old sweat, congealing and crusting up under his armpits. He hadn’t taken his thin camo shirt off in seven days, not since that Sunday.

An elderly, hunched woman turned her nose up in disgust as he shuffled past her and found an empty row toward the back of the bus. Keith’s jeans were ripped at both knees and came up short at his ankles, the hem loose with curling tendrils of cotton that danced as the bus lurched forwards. Keith quickly grabbed for the handle as the driver sped eagerly round bends and turns, hungry to find the next stop.

Despite holding tightly to the handle, Keith’s hands trembled. He was growing impatient. The memory of her was fading and he was struggling to remember the details in her soft, white face. He’d forgotten how she smelled, his nose struggling to force out the rancid smell of his own body. He couldn’t remember the clothes she’d been wearing. Except, of course, for the bright pink hair band that he now tied his own hair back with. That he would keep forever.

It was his now.

She was his now. (187 words)


Over to you

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, and to read your stories too!

Pop something in the comments below!

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