Friday, 22 April 2011

People Watching

I can remember exactly where I was - a departure lounge at Heathrow Airport in the late 90s, nursing a machine-made cappuccino that had long since lost its froth. I was on a business trip with my then manager, who was looking everywhere except at me. When I asked him what he was doing, he said that he was "people watching". One of his greatest pleasures (apart from writing impenetrable technical documents) was to watch other people from across a room and wonder what they were thinking or talking about. This was something I'd never considered - other people were just like static in my life up until that point, something to be ignored. But his words planted a seed.

Fast-forward ten or so years to last weekend, when I was sitting on Brighton's Palace Pier, feeling grumpy. This was because I'd sprained my ankle and also because I had wanted to meet a friend, but we'd contrived to come into Brighton on the one afternoon when said friend wasn't available. So I sat there, arms folded while the world walked past. It took me a few minutes before I realised that I was sat in a perfect spot for people watching. These weren't just any kind of people either, and certainly not the beautiful people you might find in Monaco, say. These were real people, with their burnt foreheads and lopsided tattoos, clad in Megadeth T-shirts or overly figure-hugging Lycra cyclewear. They argued, they ate ice cream, they pretended to push their mates over the rail into the sea. These people were the beating heart of story.

It's a terribly broad distinction, but writers can be divided into those who are interested primarily in plot and those interested primarily in character. How much that affects their writing technique is a discussion I've had before. But it does seem to me that plot-oriented writers are interested in places and character-orientated writers are interested in people. No surprises which side of the fence I fall - I remember listening to Marcus Sedgwick waxing lyrical at last year's SCBWI conference about travelling to St Petersburg in search of the perfect place to set his story. I, meanwhile, thought that I'd actually rather go to the local shopping centre and just watch the people milling about. My latest novel is set in Milton Keynes. 'Nuff said.

I'm not the kind of author who writes down everything I hear or does quick-fire character sketches of people I see - unless they exactly fit a role I need in a story. In fact, I prefer not to base characters on real people. I work on a process of osmosis, trying to soak up people's mannerisms, speech patterns and behaviour in the hope that I can combine them later in a story. It was fascinating to hear Louise Rennison talking the other week, because she takes absolutely the opposite approach - she uses people's real names for her characters and there is almost nothing in her books that hasn't happened to her in real life. Whereas there is almost nothing in my books that has happened to me in real life. I've no idea if this makes me a more creative writer than her, but clearly, I lead a very boring life.

For me, people watching is the best kind of research. It's free, readily available and can be done with a cup of coffee in one hand (and an ice cream in the other, if necessary). Who knows, if I hang out with the right people, maybe something exciting will happen for real.



  1. Love people watching, but even more I love pure listening to people. And I have to really push myself to care much about setting (although I'd love to go to St Petersberg). I found it really difficult living in Amsterdam and not being able to eavesdrop.
    But I'm not sure about the character/plot division. Maybe it's more of a character led/setting led split?

  2. People watching is one of my favourite things and something I have done for years. Like you I don't use real people but the osmosis of all those I see. Great post, thank you Nick

  3. I hope you are showing the many sides of Milton Keynes as well as the variety of character! If you want a tour of the little-known beauties of my town let me know!