Friday, October 16, 2009

I spent all of Thursday on a very long flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles to Nashville on the way to a family reunion. But what an interesting position
for a writer to be in! Three airports in one day. I took advantage of the downtime between flights to people-watch. It's a great place to collect details about people which can tell a story of their own. Here are some of my observations:

A family of four, dressed in shorts, sandals, and sleeveless shirts & t-shirts, checked in their bags on the sidewalk in the chilly pre-dawn hours in foggy Sacramento. From this I deduced they were a happy family headed for Hawaiian Airlines. Aloha!

While waiting to board, I saw a young woman feed a medium-sized Chihuahua eyedroppers of what appeared to be medicine. I saw no kennel. How did the dog travel? She only had a carryon that did not look like it would accommodate an animal, and our flight was four hours long. I wanted to hang back to see how she managed to get her pet on board.

Sitting in Los Angeles, I saw a tall 30-something man with a flowing beard wearing a long black dress coat and a quirky Eastern European style hat. He carried a briefcase and looked solemn and unapproachable.

One of my seatmates was very pleasant older woman with a round face and a thick Romanian accent. When she returned from the restroom and squeezed past me, she reeked of cigarettes. I wondered if she'd found a way to thwart the smoke detectors in the restroom and tried to imagine how it might be done.

I realized that the simple act of taking off your shoes and standing in your bare or stockinged feet in front of others at the bag check area can be a great leveler of persons. Suddenly that polished professional in the suit with the big briefcase is just a guy in saggy socks.

It's amazing how a small detail can alter appearances or create dissonance when creating characters. If that businessman in the expensive suit wore mismatched socks or his toes stuck through, or if the solemn guy in the beard suddenly began blowing Bazooka bubbles, it would have been totally at odds with their appearances. At her age, my seatmate who smelled of cigarettes didn't have a smoker's voice or cough so maybe she wasn't the smoker. Perhaps she'd been married for 40 years to a chain smoker and unknown to her, a small cluster of abnormal cells insidiously multiplied in her lungs. Could the eyedropper have held the equivalent of doggie Dramamine so Fifi would sleep the flight away tucked in a comfy bag beneath the seat at her owner's feet? What if the dad in our happy Hawaii-bound family found out quite by accident while checking his email that he would be laid off from his job when they returned?

People are so interesting, and in many more ways than just in appearance. As writers, we take time to observe people wherever we go, gleaning bits and pieces of characterization and sifting through the mundane for nuggets of truth and uniqueness for each character we create.

Where have you found the most interesting people to watch? Have you ever made an observation which led to creating a character based on it? Share it with us!


Nichole Osborn said...

I haven't based a character on what I've seen, but my favorite places to people watch are the beach and the mall.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...


Definitely in airports. I've spent a lot of time in them, unfortunately more than planned due to flight delays that lasted up to a day. Whenever I fly overseas, I take a notebook with me and write down everything I see. I've found some awesome characters that I can't wait to write! Right now I'm still in therapy--the memories of those delays are excruciating. :0)

Anonymous said...

Great post. I like to watch people just going to and fro. My mother Bless her heart could't get out of the car when we want somewhere, due to health, so she enjoyed watching people. I guess I got that from her.Beach people are usually happy people.Blessings.

Bonnie Grove said...

If I'm in public, I'm people watching. Actually, I'm usually taking it a step further and eavesdropping.

Not that I move closer to a arguing couple in order to hear what they are talking about, but I do watch the interaction. Truthfully, it's fascinating to watch people interacting.

Hubby and I will be sitting at a table having lunch and he'll be talking to me and I'm paying him no attention because the interplay between the people at another table has captured my attention.

My fascination is part writer, part counselor. I've always been drawn to how people communicate - verbally and otherwise. How you can say so much with the flick of a wrist, or the arch of an eyebrow, or the stomp of a foot.

I try hard not to be a peeping Tom - I certainly don't mean to encroach on people's privacy. But I am hopelessly drawn to watching the drama of relationships as they interact with each other in public.

Steve G said...

You should see the view from the pulpit...

Anonymous said...

Ah, Steve, my husband used to say the same thing.

Debbie, people watching is one of my favorite pastimes. Airports, grocery stores, restaurants, church ... they're all hotbeds of inspiration. Rick and I were at dinner recently and I was watching a couple at another table. Something about them really drew my interest. All of a sudden Rick said, "Okay, tell me their story." Busted, all I could do was laugh. But then, I began to tell him their story. And that's how it happens for us, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

By the way, Debbie, have a great time!

Anonymous said...

One of our favorite places to people watch is at Disneyland. We get a table off of Main Street by the entrance to the lockers and watch the people go by. I don't know what it is about being on vacation that brings out the quirkiness in people, but it does. Maybe it's the freedom they feel, just being in a different setting or being away from people they know.

Anonymous said...

Don't know what happened. I'm not on my own computer. The last post by Anonymous is me, Debbie Thomas.