16 April 2013

The writer as observer

I think I have always liked to watch people. Growing up I was very shy, and went largely unnoticed. I heard interesting conversations around me simply because people didn't really see me. And it was hearing those conversations and seeing people react to each other when they didn't realize someone was watching. And I think that ability to sort of be unseen has served me well as a writer.

I don't mean that I think writers should be wallflowers or secretly spy on people. But I do think writers should be observers. It's important for us to see the world as it is, in the quiet moments between "events" in order to share stories.

That's when you really see people. When people don't know they're being watched, they are more themselves than any other time.

I'm sorry. That sounds really creepy. I don't intend it to sound that way.

But still, you learn a lot about people, their relationships, their actions and reactions, when you sit in a public place and people-watch. In fact, I've learned a lot about my own characters by watching other people relate to and interact in the world around them.

As someone who writes realism, my goal is to write stories that put the reader in that position of observing while the characters are unaware. (Well, when I'm not writing first-person point of view, that is.) By using my own observations and incorporating them into my stories, readers can see themselves and people they know in the stories.

But even the most fantastic non-realism storyteller can use what they learn from people in their stories. Because regardless of how far from realism a story is, the readers still need to be able to relate to the characters. And to write real characters, you have to know about real people.

Yes, it's true that writing can be solitary. The stereotype of writers locking themselves away in cabins for days on end came from somewhere. But writers still have to be part of the world, and connect to it somehow, to be able to tell stories in it.

Are you an observer? How do you incorporate it into your stories?


  1. I'm an observer, and it has served me well in my writing. I like to write in cafes, and sometimes I'll jot down interesting things that I see or hear. For example, yesterday I heard someone's cell phone ringing, and the ringtone was the theme song from The Twilight Zone. I thought that was interesting, so I wrote it down. Maybe later I'll put it in a story.

  2. Cafes are a great place for observation!


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