Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The People Watching Game

For years my friend Mary Anne and I have played a people watching game. Instead of passively looking at passersby in malls, parks, or outdoor concerts, we pick themes. Like editors of a high school yearbook, we scan the masses for folks fitting the labels of "cutest couple" and "best dressed." Our all time favorite theme is "Someone should have told her she shouldn't be wearing that." You've all seen that woman, wearing the too-short skirt, the too-tight top, or the shocking combination of both in neon colors. We're not the fashion police by a long stretch, but there's always at least one outfit that goes too far.

Last week my husband and I were stuck in an airport and I taught him this game. He loved it. He came up with some good categories of his own, like "best hat" and "most impractical shoes." We had a few winners.

I realized that watching people in an airport is better than watching them in other places. People in airports experience a wider range of emotions than on a Saturday in a park or at a mall. The anonymity of being in a different city allows them to express themselves more freely. If they're traveling for vacation, they're in a great mood, eager and excited. If they are traveling for business or a family obligation, you can see the reluctance. People are rushing to make their flights, or have too much time between them. They're often stressed, like we were, because a flight has been delayed or canceled, and they have to be somewhere. The obstacles that make a good story are happening to hundreds of people at once.

My husband was surprised at the relationships I noticed: the two teenagers walking side by side, their mother following about twenty paces behind. They were together, but didn't want to be. Another mother walked backward, right in front of her two little ones, signing to them as she went. Was one of them deaf, or both, or was she? A boy rode on a wheeled bag, laughing as his father pulled. I noticed a single dad with a girl of about eleven or twelve. How did I know he was a single dad? He wore no ring, and while he was conscious of where she was, he didn't seem too worried about her. They each carried their own bags, even though she had more than he did. Dads in larger families tend to become sherpas.

So next time you're in the airport and you miss your connection, take it as an opportunity. Play the game, notice the people, and find some new characters for your story.


Sarah said...

I love people watching! It's right up there with eavesdropping at a coffee shop. You notice the best things- and yes, I do tuck some away for my characters.

I try to pay attention to mannerisms. If I'm not careful, I give my characters mannerisms that I or my friends have. It's helpful to see how others act.

Michelle said...

What's wrong with giving characters mannerisms that you or your friends have?

Sarah said...

Nothing. (I wasn't very clear, was I?) Sometimes, though, I fall into the habit of using only one or two mannerisms. That's not good if several completely different characters have the same gestures in similar situations.

Michelle said...

My favorite thing to glean from people watching is the unexpected. Like the biker guy in Wal-mart, totally decked out in studded leather, opening different bottles of fabric softener to smell them before deciding which one to buy.