How To Use Participant Observation To Write Better Stories

How To Use Participant Observation To Write Better Stories

There’s an image persistently imprinted on people’s minds—that of the eccentric scribe who heatedly types the night away on a figurative island, unaware of their fellow humans’ existence.

As a métier, writing is often considered the antithesis of socializing. Many consider the writer a lone wolf—an introvert at best and a misanthrope at worst. Scribes may have a way with words when their (digital) pens touch paper, but they give one-syllable answers and avoid eye contact during face-to-face conversations.


The stereotype isn’t always wrong. But it should be. As a writer, you can only accomplish so much while sitting at your desk. You’re a human being hoping to connect with other human beings through your stories. You want to instill joy or melancholy in them; give your two cents on this thing called life; share new insights; create awareness around an issue close to your heart.

While it’s possible to lock yourself into your writing cave and theorize about life, the best lessons are drawn from real-world experiences. You can read about your topic of interest all you want—and you should. But there comes a moment you also need to live it, at least to a certain degree.

That goes for all genres and types of writing. Whether you write literary novels, sci-fi screenplays, nonfiction books, or plays, you want your work to appeal to people in this world. So you should get out into the world and be a part of it. You can only write about people’s fortunes and misfortunes if you understand them so thoroughly they feel like your own.

Knowledge is not only power. It’s also empathy. And empathy is key if you want to create three-dimensional characters who live in believable worlds. It’s a prerequisite for writing stories that resonate with people.

But then there’s the dreaded question that might pop into your head upon reading this—How to go about it?

From Inadvertent Research to Compelling Novel: Simon Van Booy’s Night Came With Many Stars

Many years ago, while majoring in cultural anthropology and development sociology, I was introduced to participant observation. When boiled down to its essence, this research method is exactly what you think it is—you observe a certain group of people while actively participating in their daily lives for a good while. Whether it’s a community or family, you closely familiarize yourself with their beliefs, values, views, and culture. And as you immerse yourself in their world, you build genuine relationships with them. Their experiences become, at least in part, yours.

When I dove into this research method, I was excited by what it offers—firsthand knowledge, countless reality-is-stranger-than-fiction stories, and an increased ability to empathize with others.

Participant observation doesn’t just help you write better stories. It also makes for a more interesting, fulfilling life.

Perhaps you’ve even inadvertently engaged in it—like the award-winning, bestselling author Simon Van Booy. At first sight, he doesn’t seem to have anything in common with the characters in Night Came With Many Stars, his novel about a Kentuckian family that struggles to survive the rural U.S. over a century. One wonders how Simon, a British writer living in New York, could so accurately describe their culture, beliefs, habits, and even dialect. This just isn’t his world.

Or is it?

“I went to Kentucky originally when I was 17 or 18 to play American football at university,” Simon explains. “It was a very different environment from the one I’d grown up in. It was quite exotic, actually … Most people there had no frame of reference for British people.”

He lived in a very small town, where he was invited back to many households and got to see a large cross-section of Kentuckians. One family in particular—which consisted of Simon’s close friend and his parents, autistic uncle, and extended family—welcomed Simon into their home and shared their stories with him. “I’d never thought of writing any of this down,” Simon says. “I never imagined it would be a novel. Remember, this is 30 something years ago. I think I wanted to be, like, the drummer in Guns ’N Roses. There was no sense I was going to become a writer.”

Yet, a career in writing awaited him. Simon has now written more than a dozen books, which have been translated into many languages. Several have been optioned for movies. His shorter work has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. He’s also written a play and a short, both of which have been produced.

About 10 years ago, Simon decided to write a book based on his friendship with the Kentuckian family. It’s fiction, but he uses the actual first names of the family members. They wanted him to. In fact, they’d build such trust that the family gave Simon their blessing to write the book as he saw fit.

It was only then that Simon realized he had spent 20 or so years researching a yet-to-be born idea. “What you think of in terms of research for a book terrifies me,” he says. “It’s the antithesis of creativity.” Although he agrees looking at historical facts and data is often necessary, there’s not much enjoyment in it for him. “But the type of research where you go and live with people in New Zealand for six months—that sort of anthropological research, where you’re living amongst people, that’s more fun for me than writing.”

Gain Knowledge, Then Write What You Know

Participant observation has increased my understanding of the lives of people I otherwise never would’ve met. Like Simon, I’ve occasionally engaged in this research method without knowing I’d emerge from it feeling inspired to write a story. Having a background in the social sciences, though, I was aware I was conducting participant observation. And once I understood it helps create more authentic stories, I wanted to add it to my storytelling toolbox. So I distilled its basic principles and slightly adjusted them. For writers need to handle participant observation differently than, say, an anthropologist. They’re professional storytellers who should take creative liberty. At the same time, most want to accurately portray the truths of those they write about—even if their characters are made up. After all, characters always represent people in the real world, whether fictional or not.

Participant observation is not difficult. But it takes time, and you should be willing to broaden your view. You also need to like people. Simon, for example, refers to himself as a xenophile, the opposite of a xenophobe. “Since I was a child, I’ve always loved everything that’s foreign to me,” he says. “Anything that’s different—I’ve always been attracted to that.” And he didn’t grow up among people who felt the same way. His mother came to the U.K. from the slums of Jamaica in the 1950s. As the child of an immigrant, Simon experienced early in life what it’s like to be excluded; to be seen as ‘other’ and ‘foreigner.’ “I’ve watched my mother be insulted,” he says. “I was never truly accepted as a typical British child. But now of course I am, because I’m in America.”

The interpretation of a person’s identity depends on the individual making it. Everybody has built a frame of reference. We perceive the world through a lens that’s shaped by the culture and environment we grow up in. How we see others often doesn’t align with their self-image, and vice versa.

Even if you’re the least narrow-minded person you have ever met, check and double check if you’re truly going into your research journey with an open mind. You might encounter people with habits and beliefs opposite to yours. And while you don’t have to change your views, it’s crucial that you put effort into understanding theirs. Sometimes that will lead you to disagree with certain perspectives more fiercely than before—which is 100 percent okay, because you can better substantiate your stance. Other times you’ll build connections with people you thought you’d never have anything in common with.

But it’s always about learning something. ‘Write what you know’ is good advice. But hopefully, what you know today isn’t the same as what you know tomorrow, or a few months from now. The point is to spend time gaining knowledge and write about what you’ve learned afterward. Write what you then know.

Participant observation is one of the best ways to do it, as long as you keep some basic principles in mind.

Not every project allows for a comprehensive research process, but it’s important that you somehow immerse yourself in the environment relevant to your story. So prepare to spend more than one afternoon in it. And while you’ll want to observe your surroundings, make sure you don’t remain an outsider. Adapt to the people who allow you into their lives. You don’t have to become them. Just be mindful and unobtrusive. You’ll gradually form an opinion, and it will be well founded.

But first, interact with people. Take a genuine interest in them. Try and understand their dreams, hopes, fears, and struggles. Know their past, present, and (vision for the) future. Fathom their values, views, and beliefs, even if these are nothing like yours. Especially then. Pay attention to behaviors and speech patterns. Build lasting relationships. It will enrich your life. Your work is part of that life, always. But it’s the humans behind the story who matter—every person you talk to; you, the individual who immortalizes characters; and people in the real world who identify with them.

Don’t forget to take note of cultural and social dynamics. If you participate in a community, you’ll see how traditions, social norms, socio-economic backgrounds, and other factors shape people’s interactions and choices. Put yourself in their shoes. Try to understand decisions you’d never make—or think you’d never make. Empathizing with others doesn’t mean you’re making excuses for the inexcusable.

It simply enables you to better explain life and everyone in it. It’s the key to telling compelling stories.

Participant observation can be overwhelming, so make sure to document your experiences. Take field notes or keep a journal. Your scribblings on events, conversations, and striking details will come in handy during the writing process.

Depending on the way you want to use the information you’ve collected, you might want to get legal advice. I’m not providing that, since it’s not my area of expertise. But even if it’s legally permitted to disclose personal or sensitive information about real-life people, consider the ethical side of things. That’s always important, but even more so if you’ve conducted participant observation and built relationships.

You should never have to compromise someone’s privacy or break trust to write a great story. It’s not worth it, and it is unnecessary. Good storytellers can practice their craft and respect the people whose trust they’ve gained.

Start Small and Follow the Trail

You might want to test the participant observation waters before embarking on a comprehensive research journey. If so, I’ve created an exercise that doesn’t take much time and helps you decide whether this research method works for you. If you switch to semi-anthropologist mode afterward, it can become part of your broader research toolkit. If not, it also works as a standalone exercise.

Initially, keep things simple. You’ll have to invest more than a few hours, but don’t yet commit to weeks or months of research. Start by selecting one area you want to learn more about. If you’re writing about a singer-songwriter, pick music education, song composition, performing on stage, navigating the music scene, life on the road—anything that’s relevant to your story.

Then, list a few places where people from your character’s community would gather. In this case, a concert, recording studio, or college music department will do.

Once you’ve selected a place, try and get access. Depending on your chosen context, you can do this through the formal or informal route. At this stage, don’t overcomplicate things.

You can write to a musician or recording studio and ask if you can spend some time with them as they go through their daily routine. But if it’s difficult to talk to an insider, attend an event that’s accessible to everyone, such as a concert or music festival. Observe and participate. Chat with people. Don’t think too much about your writing project. Just get to know them.

Nine out of ten times, conversations will happen organically if you’re open to having them.

I’ll give you an example. Recently, I went to a Broadway show because I’m researching the Broadway scene for a project I’m working on. As I wanted to learn more about the orchestra during performances, I got a front row ticket. During intermission, I observed the space and took notes. A musician looked up from the pit and struck up a conversation with me. When I told him about my writing project, he offered to answer any questions I had after the show. He gave me firsthand information I couldn’t have found in books.

Later, when I worked on my notes at a nearby restaurant, the waiter asked about my project—then told me a close friend had researched a specific sub topic I was looking into. Before I knew it, I had her contact information.

Although this isn’t participant observation in the traditional sense, it gives you a little taste of what it’s like to immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about. If you feel it’s useful, follow the trail. One word, one conversation, or one person can open the doors to endless discoveries. If it doesn’t happen the first time, just repeat the exercise. Before you know it, you’re part of the community you want to write about. And then, the stories will come to you. Some will be moving. Others appalling. Let it happen. As you watch and listen and create connections with people, you’re shaping the story you’ll ultimately tell. And when you do, it will be yours and theirs—whoever all of you are by then.

For no one will be the person they were before. Every individual’s presence affects every other individual’s presence, and each action and inaction changes the community as a whole. That’s a concern in the social sciences, but it’s great for the human experience.

Without realizing it, you’ve co-shaped a new story together. Simon has done it. I’ve done it. You’ve undoubtedly done it, too.

And that’s probably the most interesting element of participant observation—it brings separate narratives together and merges them. It’s a story in itself that continues to create other ones. You are instrumental to the process. Everyone you interact with is, too.

You’ll never be able to tell upfront what the new narrative will look like. One thing’s for sure, though—the moment you become part of a community’s story, it will forever be part of you.

If you want to know more about Simon Van Booy’s organic research process, the story behind the book, his philosophy of life, and the ethics of participant observation, watch the entire interview.

How to Enrich and Speed Up Your Storytelling Process Through Research

*Feature image by Cristina Conti (Adobe)

Annalisa Koukouves is the founder of a storytelling and writing business and the creator of a philosophical newsletter. She has over 14 years of experience. Her work has appeared in various outlets.
More posts by Annalisa Koukouves.
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