Writing exercise: people watching

Let’s all just admit something. It’s hard coming up with characters out of thin air. That’s why it’s important for any good writer to stay alert and do some people watching. We all do it instinctively anyway, but as writers, we need to focus our full attention on it every once in a while. Consider it an exercise in refilling sources for your imagination. Below I outline a method that I follow.

Gathering Information

Public transportation is a great place to start practicing people watching. My train rides home are a source for many vivid characters I create in my head. I notice something interesting about a person, maybe their colorful hat, or the confident way they walk, or a scar on their face, and I write these things immediately. Nothing fancy, just a bullet point list of details.

Example from a late night ride home from the inner city:

  • Male
  • Sandy blonde, hair in ponytail,
  • puffy tan sports jacket,
  • eyes with heavy lids half closed,
  • sitting slouched forward with legs taking up lots of space,
  • pretty damn drunk, but not so drunk that he’s just zoned out,
  • he is looking around and commenting on everything out loud.
  • Also, simply thinking out loud, so it’s like stream of consciousness?

Asking questions

Later (or if inspiration really hits I do it on the spot) I begin asking myself questions based on these details. I let myself wonder about every aspect of this person’s life and as I’m doing this, I start to see a character forming in my mind.

  • What is his name?
  • Why is he so drunk?
  • How will he make it home in one piece?
  • Who is going to take care of him when he gets home?
  • What is it that makes people do this to themselves? Loss? Did he lose something important?

Note: If you’re really stuck on this part, this character questionnaire from Creative Writing Now is handy.

Putting characters into narrative

After asking all these questions, I start answering them and filling in the details. To do this, I have to think about motives. I have to put myself into his shoes. Usually, by this point, inspiration strikes, and I can start forming a narrative from these details.

Example of a quick draft:

Mikkel Schmidt liked to go into town, get loaded, and babble incoherent things on the train ride home. It was a hobby. Some people had gardening or book clubs, he had his booze. 

“I’m almost home, I’m almost home hehehe,” he said into the air, giggling like a two year old offered a life time supply of chocolate. The woman sitting next to him shifted her slumped position as she tried to hide a smile. He glanced over at her, taking in her wild, multicolored scarf engulfing her lower face and her thick black eye liner. Yeesh, he thought, Some people just have no taste.

She looked about the same age as Elsabeth was when he first met her ten years ago. Damn, now that was a WO-MAN: elegant, confident, with just a touch of crazy that he noticed right away when she ordered a whiskey at the bar. “Straight up” she had said. 

If it hadn’t been for that suave corporate fuck two years later, she might still be his. Remembering his smug face made the skin on Mikkel’s neck start to redden with heat. He gave a few wild kicks and a couple swings with his right arm, fighting an invisible man from his seat. He noticed the slumped woman tense up, which made him quiet down… 


That’s as far as I got today, but there are still many more questions left to answer. From just a 20 minute train ride, I managed to create a character with a lot of potential for history and conflict. With more time, this character can very well be my future novel’s protagonist.

Try this out the next time you find yourself in a creative rut. It might just inspire you to find your next story.


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