Finding inspiration can be a frustrating task if I’m feeling stuck and… uninspired.

There are times when my brain is overflowing with ideas and thoughts. Following an initial idea turns into a complete backstory or some major plot twist. I love it. This feeling is exciting, following leads intriguing and most of the times rewarding as well.

Other times I’m staring at a blank page, not knowing where to even get started. Inspiration seems to be on vacation. It’s those times when I need a change of scenery and some time for human study.

The Subtle Art of Studying Humans

Take something to write and go sit in a cafĂ© or some other place where lots of different people are. A park may be good or even a mall or a train. You do want to be able to write down your observations and thoughts though, so standing or walking around may be difficult (you can record you voice though, if you’re comfortable doing that). Try to find a seating option with a little privacy and a good view on the people around you.

Make yourself comfortable, order a drink or something and lean back. Let your gaze move over the surrounding people leisurely, without piercing anyone with obvious stares. You don’t want to seem like someone holding an audition or worse like some weird creep. Just let the general scenery have an impact on you.

Now you can start making some deductions about what you see.

Create Unique Descriptions

This exercise aids your ability to write character descriptions that are distinct and vivid. Describing your protagonist as someone with brown hair and brown eyes is utterly generic, applies to many people and – what’s worse – leaves no clear picture in your readers mind. Why not up your game by learning impressive and unique character depictions?

Pull out your detectives hat and start observing the people around you. Imagine you’ll have to describe the people to the police for identification. How does a person stand out? What are some unique features of him or her?

Look at their facial features. What stands out one way or another? Do they have thin lips? Or especially full ones? Bushy eyebrows? A huge jaw? A tiny nose? Do they have a mole? Or lots of creases?

Look at their body. Are they especially athletic? Overweight? Do they have a huge belly? Or a tiny waist?

Analyze their appearance and way of dressing. Do they wear fashionable clothing? Expensive ones? Do they obviously care or don’t care about their appearance? Maybe they have a distinct hair style? Or oily hair? Shabby and worn-out clothes?

Observe their movement. What stands out about their demeanor? Are they left-handed? Do they seem confident? Or shy? How? Do they have a hunchback? Can you identify some quirks? Or some unique way of walking?

Observing people is a nice way to learn about distinct appearances and it’s amazing to see just how different descriptions can be. Do you manage to describe the people around you in a way that’s unique and identifying?

Imagine a Backstory

If you’re familiar with peoples appearances it’s fascinating to make assumptions about their backstory. You can let your imagination run free and just fantasize about where those people come from and what kind of life they’ve lived up to this point.

One way is to pick some distinct feature of a person and make up a story around it. Did you see a scar perhaps? How did it happen? Maybe she fell as a girl and got hurt. Or maybe she is an assassin who got wounded in a fight. Did you see especially ragged clothes? Is he a runaway from home? Or maybe he is giving away all his money to help someone else? It could also be a millionaire with some kind of trauma who runs away from his past. You can go as realistic or as extreme as you want.

Or you can take the overall impression of someone to make some kind of conclusion about their past. Take a young woman with elegant clothes, perfect hair and nails and a confident composure. She could very well be the daughter of a rich household who lived life on the more comfortable side. She could also be a young genius who invented some software that sold well, living a life of luxury now. Same appearance, but certainly a different background.

You can make any kind of conclusion here, nothing is wrong. Taking a glance at some details of a persons past can be very revealing and helps to create traits for your own characters in the future. It’s a lot of fun to give your character some features that tie back to something that happened in their past. It creates a lot more authenticity in my opinion.

Managing to come up with an impression of the overall life a person has lived is also incredibly valuable, because you learn to make a connection between a persons appearance and demeanor and what they tell about a persons backstory. You can use this in two ways: If you know what kind of character you want to create, you can now make assumptions as to how this person may have lived. Or if you know the backstory of your character, you can make conclusions about the appearance this character is going to have.

Create Stories

Taking the imagination of backstory a bit further, you can also fabricate stories that are happening right in the moment of observation. This is especially fun, because you feel like part of the stories that you come up with. And you can go as timid or as wild with this as you want to.

You may take into account the genre you’re usually writing for and use this as some kind of filter for making assumptions. Say you’re writing romance novels, then you could focus more on all things romantic. If you see a young sad looking mother who cares for her baby, her husband could be a soldier in war. He could also be having an affair that she’s aware of. Maybe he died and she’s struggeling with making a living alone. Or you oversee a man taking a look at some woman. Maybe they are secretly involved. Or she is the love of his life and he happened to see her unexpectedly.

If you are writing thriller novels you’ll probably see something completely different. The young mother could be the next victim of a serial murderer. Or she may be an undercover cop who is on a stakeout. The man glancing at a woman could be a spy who hunts a criminal. Or he is a conman in search of his next victim.

You certainly don’t have to restrict yourself to your genre though. I think it’s quite interesting to take many different possibilities into account. Books usually contain many different human interactions and looking at the people around you with an open mind sharpens your skills to create just that.

Well, there you have it. Three ways to get most out of your coffee break by observing the people around you. Give it a try and let us know how it went. Did you come up with additional approaches? Was it hard or easy? Fun? Rewarding? Let us know in the comments below.

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