Her eyes follow me. Ever watching. Never blinking. Is she planning my demise? Is she hungry? No. She just gazes, taking in every movement with relentless observation. I try to stare back, but it’s in vain. She always wins. I give her a slow blink, showing friendship. She ambles across the floor, pausing for a long stretch to prove she isn’t overly eager, then rubs against my leg. Purring.
I’ve heard people say a cat’s stare is eerie. I don’t think so, but I can see why they do. I often wonder if that’s the way strangers feel when I go out people-watching. Most of the time, I go unnoticed. I try to not openly stare. Once in a while, though, I get caught. The person in my sights glances over, our eyes meet, and I quickly look away. Each time, I want to hold up a big sign that says I’m a writer.
In 59 Cents a Pound, Charles Bukowski writes: “I like to prowl ordinary places and taste the people — from a distance.” The poem, in my opinion, really captures the essence of people-watching, an activity just about every writer I know engages in. Writers observe and, if done well, bear witness to the human condition.
On a less grand scale, people-watching can enrich our characters and our stories. The way a person speaks, moves, gestures, or dresses can be borrowed to add layers of detail to our characters. Snippets of dialogue can make great writing prompts. Noting subtle expressions that display a particular emotion can help us convey that same emotion to our readers.
My personal favorite part of people-watching is playing the “what if” game. What if the couple glaring at each other over breakfast, not saying a word, just found out they were both cheating on each other. The woman smiles to herself. Is she smiling at the thought of meeting her lover later that evening? Or, is she secretly gloating because she cleared out the bank accounts before he could? Or, does she know this is their last meal together because she hired a hit man? Or, maybe she’s remembering their wedding day. Maybe she’s planning ways to re-ignite the love they once shared. The possibilities are endless.
Do you enjoy people-watching? How has it made your writing better? Have you ever caught someone watching you?
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