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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Psychologist as Writer

He's watching you (but in that creepy way)...
         As a little kid, I used to sit and watch people. I was like Harriet the Spy but without the notebook (after I read her book, I realized the possible perils of keeping a notebook and decided it was a no go). I didn’t watch people in a creepy way – I was always the kid that didn’t participate, but instead sat and observed everyone else. I joke with my students that even as a child, I was a social psychologist, always watching people to see what they do and why they do it.
         Now as an adult I still sit back and observe often times before I interact. I see how others who have been there longer behave, what are the social expectations, how others are received when they do certain things. I have been told by friends that I seem standoffish at first, but that after a while I “come out of my shell” and people can see my personality instead of just seeing me as learning about the group.
         I don’t watch people to judge them. I don’t watch people to see if my expectations about them (based upon initial impressions) are correct. I look for patterns. I learn about people and see how their behaviors and expressed attitudes fit with what I know about them. For example, I meet someone who is a police officer. I watch and listen, and draw up the information I have learned from observing other police officers, and see if there are matches. Sometimes I see that there may be a “police officer personality or set of typical behaviors;” sometimes I see that there are “groups within the group” meaning that under the umbrella of “police officers” there are some that are like X, some that are like Y, and some that are like Z.
         Doing all this watching was and is still helpful in my writing. When I have an idea for a story, I’ll think about the characters and build them based upon what I know about people who are similar to how I imagine the character. I can draw on what I know about Police Officer Type Y and use that in my story. When people ask me how they can get better at writing or specifically at creating realistic characters, I encourage them to, well, become voyeurs. Watch people. You don’t have to just watch people’s behaviors that you know either – sitting and drinking a coffee while unobtrusively observing others may rouse some creative idea in you as well.

         “People watching” isn’t just about being that creepy person in the corner who is staring at everyone. It’s more about interacting while being cognizant of how the others you’re interacting with think and act. Psychology, the scientific study of behaviors and mental processes, isn’t just for psychologists. It’s definitely a useful tool for writers as well. (And just an added PSA, not all psychologists are clinical psychologists who work with clients with mental disorders, so no I’m not diagnosing you, that’s not what I do).

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