Watching People


Hello and welcome! It’s time for me to discuss another absolutely random bookish topic. As usual, I’m linking this to the awesome Discussion Challenge, where you can find more people talking about books.

Today, I want to talk to you about watching people. Or people watching. In any case, I want to make an argument that we, as readers, are essentially chronic people watchers and that I am quite happy to be one. (I also wanted to use the word “voyeur” here but luckily checked the dictionary beforehand – and found out its meaning is much narrower than I previously thought. *oops* I really hope I’ve never used in any “general” sense before.)

Anyway. I was sitting on the bus the other day, listening to music, as one does when trying to protect oneself from inane conversations of fellow passengers and the bus drivers’ horrible choice in music when I found myself staring at a car that stopped beside us at the traffic lights. There was a man dressed in a fancy business suit sitting behind the wheel – it was a fairly new Volvo with cream leather seats – and I couldn’t see his head. But on the back seat, there was a kid of about six years and he was laughing at something, they were holding hands across the seats and having such a cool moment I couldn’t help but smile.

And then I thought: they have no idea that I’m watching them, that their private moment of laughter and fun is being witnessed by a perfect stranger. (Seriously, people, don’t do anything in cars that you wouldn’t do out in the open. People are probably watching you, as weird as that sounds.)


Now that I’ve creeped you out with my confession of enjoying other people’s private moments, you’re probably wondering how this relates to books.

I would argue that we, as readers, do this kind of people watching every time we pick up a book. When we allow the author to tell us all about the characters’ lives, we engage in exactly this sort of behaviour. The poor characters don’t even know we’re watching and here we are, witnessing their worst and best moments.

And you know you want to watch their most private moments. You want to know what they think, how they react, how they live. If the author doesn’t provide us with these glimpses of the characters’ inner workings, it’s virtually impossible to make an emotional connection and therefore care about them – or the book in general.

So I would say that we are well used to poking our noses into other people’s private lives, even though they’re mostly fictional. Whether or not you’re also fond of doing this in real life is another question – and probably depends on your habits and personality.

I like to imagine stories for people I see in my daily life: the dad probably just picked up his kid from school and they were going home to meet the mom and then leave for a weekend getaway of mountain hiking. Or the kid was picked up from school by his cool uncle because his parents were busy and they were going to play video games for the whole evening and eat their weight in popcorn and candy. Or the kid had just won a science award at school and was telling his dad how his experiment had wowed all the girls in his class.

In any case, I love stories about people. And this is what makes reading so magical to me, this chance to witness their experience, their joy and grief and everything in between.


Do you like to watch people (fictional or otherwise)? 

Does reading seem a bit dirty all of a sudden? :)

I’d love to hear from you!

Follow me: emailbloglovin’twitterinstagramgoodreads.

  • Greg Hill

    Well when you put it like THAT… lol no seriously I never thought of reading like that before, it’s an interesting point. With all the bad stuff going on in the world it is nice to see good moments, whether it’s people we know or like you said the people in the car next to us. I always find it interesting how people act at places like conventions you tend to see both the best and the worst- sometimes it’s hard for people to moderate their inner geek when they can cut loose- but how that pertains to reading I don’t know, the thought just occurred to me.

    Anyway great post. I do think as much as I love a good plot, it is often the characters- people- that drive a good story. :)

    • I know, it hit me, too, that this is a weird way of looking at reading but there it is.

      I’ve never been to a convention (though I’d love to attend one someday, a big one!) but I can imagine what you mean. It’s partly being among fellow geeks and probably partly due to cosplay? People always “let loose” on Halloween, for example, it’s this “I’m in costume therefore my actions don’t count as my own” mentality.

      And yeah, I’d take a character-driven story over action-driven one any day. I mean, I like an action-packed plot but if I don’t connect with the characters, it’s all for nothing.

  • Maraia

    Hahaha, I love this! I am absolutely a people watcher. It actually surprises me a little that you enjoy people watching so much, since you’re an extrovert. I always assumed it was more of an introvert characteristic, since many of us find it easier to observe than to actively participate.

    I never thought to relate my love of people watching to my love of reading, but you’re absolutely right that reading is just another, possibly more socially acceptable form of it. Personally, I don’t find the idea of people watching that creepy, unless someone is very obviously staring or intruding. The people you watched in the car didn’t know they were being observed, so it didn’t do them any harm. Also, it’s hard to imagine being so disconnected from your fellow humans that you wouldn’t find other people interesting. I think it’s fascinating!

    Great discussion topic, as always!

    • Well, we all get bored sometimes and then people watching is a good distraction. :) No but seriously, I don’t think it’s inherently an introverts’ trait. I always liked watching people, I mean, I felt like watching others and then not repeating their stupid mistakes was an okay way of being successful, for example. :) And I’ve always been one of those people that other people tell their personal stories/secrets to – I don’t know why but apparently I inspire confidence. And so I’ve learned and listened and watched.

      I’m actually hoping for a comment that would say: “I DON’T DO THIS, YOU’RE A CREEP”, it would be interesting to see a different point of view on this one. :D I am fairly sure we all people watch sometimes but maybe I’m wrong. I mean, people COULD see this as an invasion of their privacy. But I’d never go so far as to eavesdrop with the intention to eavesdrop – like hide behind doors or whatever. I’m not nosy, just curious. :)

      And thanks! :)

      • Maraia

        I think I had convinced myself otherwise by the time I finished my comment, haha. But I do think that the way you described yourself is not necessarily the norm for extroverts? I guess everyone’s different. :P

        Hahaha, let me know if you do end up getting a different perspective! Oh, there’s definitely a difference between innocently people watching and actually eavesdropping. Part of the innocence of people watching, though, is the fact that the people you’re observing are strangers, where as, to me, eavesdropping implies that you know the people you’re observing.

        • I don’t know about other extroverts… I mean, I don’t think anyone spends their entire time thinking just about themselves, you know, except if they’re reaaaally self-absorbed.

          Hm, you might have a point with the eavesdropping. I don’t think I’ve eavesdropped in ages, though. But sometimes you’re sitting at a table in a cafe, for example, and people at the next table are having the most absurd conversation and you can’t help but listen in. Is this eavesdropping? I’m not sure. :)

          • Maraia

            I hope not! xD

            I think that’s overhearing a conversation, not eavesdropping. It impossible not to listen when that happens. :P

  • Pingback: Ten Interesting Posts of the Week (5/22/16) – Pages Unbound()

  • I’ve never thought about reading in quite this way, but turns out it’s totally true. I already knew I was a people watcher. I am nosy, but I am a subtle kind of nosy. I will never stick my nose into other people’s business, I will not ask questions unless someone brings up the topic first and then I want to know all. I people watch everywhere I go and create my own stories for people in my head. In my job I get to see a lot of different names whilst paying various accounts and looking into things on our system and I come up with a story for people based simply upon their name. Days can get slow and I have to entertain myself somehow.

    I suppose reading is essentially immersing yourself into another person’s life and learning everything about them. Sure, the lives you are reading about are fictional, but so are the stories I make up in my head for strangers on the street, doesn’t make it any less entertaining.

    Also, don’t worry about learning voyeur means something different than you thought, that happens to me all the time. I actually find myself looking up words online for fun and learning their definition, and then looking at all the synonyms for it. I get very bored at work some days and I really like learning new words, even if I don’t use them.

    • I’m nosy, too. I think for me, it comes with being alone (working from home) a lot, so whenever I’m among people, I tend to try and suck in as much information as possible. When I meet my friends, I’m always like: “TELL ME EVERYTHING!” And people are usually more than willing to talk about themselves. :)

      Haha, I can imagine you see some pretty funny names that way! And of course entertaining yourself while you work is crucial for your sanity, even if you love what you do.

      And yep, reading definitely comes with getting to know all the inner workings of a character. I love to learn about new aspects of a hero’s character!

      I know there are some people who like to learn new words and then purposefully use them in real life as a challenge – I don’t usually do that but I’m all about learning new words, both in English and in Slovenian. In Slovenian, though, it’s more likely that I discover OLD words, like the ones that aren’t used anymore. I like those a lot.

      • I can imagine you’re even more eager to hear about other people spending a lot of time by yourself. I’m the same wanting people to fill me in on their lives when I meet up, but I don’t think that’s my natural nosiness kicking in, I just always need to get caught up.

        There are so many good names, we had a woman whose name was sultana the other day and all I could think of was the food. Then you get a Lord or a SIr and instantly you imagine some rich snob whose never worked a day in their lives.

        And I love learning new words. I never use them in conversation, I just really like learning new things. Discovering old unused words is always incredibly fun, especially when you discover old words which mean something different now than they used to.

        • Ooh, do you get a lot of Lords and Sirs? It’s so amazing to me that you still have those even though being in a monarchy probably doesn’t look much different from what we have here (at least in this century).

          • Not as many as you might hope, but there are a few. I’m pretty certain a couple of them are people who bought their title online, but get it where you can. And, to be honest, you forget we have a monarchy until some important even like the Queen’s birthday. And the Royal Variety every year.

  • That’s a really interesting analysis! It made me think, maybe we’re addicted to people’s stories for the experience–particularly the emotional experience. Did you ever see Syfy’s retelling of Alice in Wonderland? It’s just called “Alice,” and it featured a “Hearts Casino” where human emotions were harvested and bottled for Wonderland consumption. I guess certain books are kind of like that to us.

    • I think humans have this need to connect with other people – if you’re a well-adjusted individual, I mean, there are others who just don’t feel that need. And reading and people watching are both ways of doing that without too much effort! :)

      And no, I haven’t seen Alice, but the scene you described sounds interesting but also creepy!

  • Actually, beyond my religious convictions, this is one of the reasons I don’t like reading explicit material. Even if they are fictional, it just feels wrong to me to be reading about someone’s most private moments. I always thought that was just my own prudishness.

    • Haha, yeah, I can see how that would bother some people. I’ve gotten used to all the nudity in books – and now I’m actually more uncomfortable if the private moment is of the emotional, rather than sexual nature. I mean, that’s when things get really raw, when people bare themselves to each other! :)

  • I’m definitely a people watcher too, and I do have a tendency to try and make up a story for people as well! I also tend to look at houses as I pass them and try and imagine who would live there, which I guess is kind of weird too, but it’s my writer’s brain!
    I have never thought of this in terms of books though, so this post was really, really interesting. I had never really thought of the reader as watching the characters in that way, but you’re totally right! In their fictional world, they have no idea that we’re there with them, following all their thoughts and feelings and actions. It definitely made me think a lot more about how weird (and great!) reading actually is, so great post! :)

    • Ah, yes, looking at houses and imagining people’s lives is a similar hobby! I especially wonder about that when I see a really fancy but ugly house. :)

      I mean, OF COURSE we’re talking about fictional people who were created with the sole purpose of having their lives exposed to us. But still, if you take their stories as real, there are parallels to the real world.

  • Oh, interesting. I’d never thought of reading in quite this way. But you’re right, reading is a bit like people-watching, isn’t it? Or at least, it encompasses people-watching, with the addition of inner thoughts, storylines (usually), and occasionally dragons.

    • Hey, you can dragon-watch, too! ;) Dragons are always a great addition to the story.

      And yeah, reading definitely seems like people watching, even though characters’ lives are fictional.

  • What an interesting way to look at reading. You’re right, it is like we’re taking a peak into someone else’s life. I’m a devout people watcher. If I’m sitting down waiting for anything (or standing in line), I will people watch. I’ve discovered that having sunglasses on and either a book or phone in hand is essential when trying to remain inconspicuous. If I’m with someone, I’ll usually create a story for them about strangers around us for entertainment purposes. It just really helps pass the time, and also, if you pay attention, people really are funny and you can draw inspiration from real people if you’re a writer. Great discussion!

    • Haha, you make it sound like people watching is a religion. :D And VERY sneaky of you, bringing sunglasses and a book to people watch, that’s some next level spy mastery. ;) But yeah, as soon as people are aware that someone is watching them, it gets weird. But some people are just so self-absorbed (or just oblivious? Like in cars.) that they go on doing whatever they’re doing even if they’re in a public place.

      Yeah, my husband and I do that, too, especially for other couples – like how they met, how long they’ve been together.

  • I never really thought about it like this before, but you’re right – it is kind of like people watching when we read about the intricate details of these characters’ lives!

    • I know, it struck me as something new, too! It was one of those “huh, why haven’t I though of this before” moments.
      Although it is true that characters are fictional and written with the purpose of being bared to us! :)

  • Hmmm, I’d never thought of reading that way before but I think you’re on to something! I’m pretty curious about the people in my “real life,” and I like to know what’s going on with them and what they’re about…which is also how I feel about characters in books. There’s actually a lot of really interesting research that shows that people who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don’t – which I think supports your point. Reading about people helps us see inside their heads and hearts and has the potential to change how we interact with and think about people in our non-bookish lives, too.

    Making up stories about strangers is so fun! One of my guilty pleasures with my friends is eyeing couples or groups of friends at restaurants having animated conversations – then we will try to guess what they might be saying. Something along the lines of “OMG, she looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends…” <– +1 if you get that reference ;)

    • I agree, it’s easier to relate to people in real life if you’re used to empathising with book characters – I think reading also makes you more tolerant towards others (and I don’t just mean towards diverse people, but in general). In other words, reading is the best hobby ever. :)

      Haha, yeah, if you see people having an argument or someone is making a point with a lot of hand-waving, it’s always fun to imagine what they’re talking about. I wonder if anyone does that for me – I wave my hands quite a bit when I get excited. :)

      And no, no extra points for reference-getting. :(

  • I’ve never really thought of reading as people watching before but you are absolutely right! I do like to people watch. I also like to imagine the lives of random strangers, or where that person stuck next to you in traffic is actually going to end up when you finally get out of the traffic jam? It’s never occurred to me that when I read I’m people watching, but I’m definitely going to be thinking it as a I read from now on. Such an interesting post! :D

    • Yes! That’s it exactly, people watching is a great way to pass the time. :) I’m really glad everyone who commented seems to agree with me and I’m not the weird one here! :)

      I’m sorry if I ruined your reading experience, it was just one of those “wow, how have I never thought of this before” moments for me!

      • Oh no, no, you haven’t ruined my reading experience – you’ve enhanced it! It has given me something else to consider as I read :D

        • Okay, whew! :) I was worried there for a moment!

  • I think bookish people are all more or less voyeurs (in the clean sense of the word LOL) because we don’t like to get insight into other people’s lives – and often, that insight is private. Being an introvert, I definitely watch people (while pretending I’m busy so I don’t need to interact haha) so I see how that transfers to reading too! Interesting topic^^

    • So there IS a clean sense of the word “voyeur”? :) I certainly meant it that way.

      Haha, someone else suggested getting a pair of sunglasses and a book to hide behind when you’re people-watching – spy masters around the world would be proud. :)