Backstory in fiction and real life (or, Orange Juice Man)

My mom taught me an advanced form of people watching. We still practice it fairly often in public places⎯the diner, the airport, a street fair.

Here’s how it’s done. Let’s say Mom and I are at the grocery store, strolling the aisle. I push the cart and hum along to the music while Mom checks the sodium content on a can of broth.

Up ahead, we both notice a man in a clean button-down shirt, with just a dusting of silver hair on his temples. He’s trying to decide which brand of orange juice to buy. He’s got a white carton in one hand and a yellow carton in the other, and he’s studying them. Finally the man makes his selection and slowly shuffles off to the check out.

My mom puts the can of broth in our cart and says, “Theo?”

“No,” I say. “He prefers Stan, but his friends call him Manly Stanly just to bust his chops. His girlfriend moved out last night. ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ she told him. He’s going to drink himself into a stupor tonight, while watching the Bruins game. Alone. He’s trying to decide between lots of pulp, or no pulp, in his gin and juices.”

“Hmm,” my mom says as we turn the corner into the bread aisle. “Theo. He’s a dentist, happily married to a champion equestrienne. He’s got a gassy beagle waiting in the driver’s seat of his minivan. He’s taking his time with the orange juice because it’s the quietest part of his day. As soon as he gets home, his five children, all under the age of nine, will be jumping all over him, begging him for horsey rides around the living room.”

“I can dig it,” I say, reaching for a loaf of pumpernickel. We continue on, keeping an eye out for the next interesting person to profile, yes, but also wondering about Orange Juice Man, and what his story really is.

To non-writers, or to more concrete thinkers, the idea of me and Mom perusing public places, swapping made-up stories about the people we pass, might seem odd. But, as an exercise of the imagination, Advanced People Watching is key to my writing life, especially when it comes to backstory.

I conceive backstory as definitive moments in a character’s history⎯whether that history is five minutes ago or fifty years ago⎯that layer and lend intrigue to the story’s main narrative. I get well acquainted with a character’s backstory. Even if I don’t reveal the backstory to readers, I still know about my character’s first kiss, deepest fear, most cherished possession.

Thinking about real people in terms of their personal histories is not so different. When I challenge myself to create a backstory for someone like Orange Juice Man, I’m forced to consider motivations, surprising details, pathos ….

Mom isn’t a writer. She’s a nurse who has spent decades at the bedsides of the ill and the dying. Her profession has made her keenly aware of a certain commonality people share: pain, whether physical or emotional. We’ve all got it.

So Advanced People Watching is also useful in my non-writing life in that, if I encounter a rude or grumpy person, I try to remember to pause and consider that person’s backstory. Maybe her cat died last night. Maybe she has a migraine. Maybe I remind her of her uncharitable boss. Maybe her son’s in the hospital.

To sum up, I think Advanced People Watching can provide both a nice reminder to exercise kindness, and important practice for creating rich, satisfying fiction.

Do you people watch too? Tell me about it. How does it serve you?

~Alicia Bessette

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29 thoughts on “Backstory in fiction and real life (or, Orange Juice Man)

  1. I love watching people, but had not thought of the Advanced version. Will certainly try that.
    The guy in the store was named Len and he just got out of prison last week. He was amazed to see real orange juice and not that watered-down stuff they served at Attica.

  2. laura and I play “that’s your boyfriend.” it doesn’t involve as much backstory creation because usually we’re driving past people on the street. but, oh, the laughter!

    i do remember one time as a kid — i was probably 14 — and I was at a friendly’s with two of my friends (how droll!) and this group of older men came in. i became fascinated by them because they looked like a ragtag bunch of petty thieves — mustaches, sunglasses, army jackets. something about them screamed “crooked.” one guy actually looked like the bootleg copy of my friend’s dad (you know, a more ragged clone). I ended up writing down all of these crazy details about them on the back of a kids menu because I was sure that in a few days we’d hear about their foiled scheme to rob a local drugstore or deli.

    alas, nothing ever happened. but i still have that sheet that describes where they sat around the table, how they looked, and even what they ordered probably. my friends found this amusing, but for a variety of reasons that I still do not appreciate.

  3. I do this when I run, but not just with people. Everything has a backstory. Everything, whether living or not, has a history.

    For example, a few days ago we saw a bird with a broken wing hopping around on the sidewalk, its feathers ruffled. I immediately imagined a valiant fight with a cat. The bird had survived great odds! I started to admire the bird rather than pity it. (Although is there anything sadder than a bird with a broken wing?)

    I once saw a Bigwheels in the lake and I wondered how it ended up there. Did some drunken teenager throw it in? Or did the wind take it? Perhaps some daredevil kid actually rode it into the lake and his mother pulled him out but didn’t want to put the wet dirty Bigwheels back into the car, so she looked both ways, saw no one was watching, and then left. Maybe she felt guilty later that night and confessed to her husband who has a germ phobia and he forbid her to return to the scene of the crime and pull the Bigwheels out? Any of these scenarios are possible, and choosing one really does tell you a lot about the way your mind works.

    My MFA advisor once said something like storytelling is just making one choice after another. Thousands and thousands of choices that collectively create a scenario. Like life. Nothing but choices.

    On my regular running route there is a huge white dog. Most days, he waits for me behind a fence and then runs the length of his property with me. He looks like a mythical creature, like a wolf mated with a polar bear. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point. And I’ve been thinking up all sorts backstories for him. Or maybe her. Ha!

  4. One time in Justin Cronin‘s fiction class, he read us the last paragraph of a short story. It described a frozen lake at night, and a teenage girl standing barefoot, watching a car pull do-nuts on the ice. Our assignment was, essentially, to write the backstory: how did that scene come to be?

    We spent a few moments writing, and then Cronin read us the whole story. Turns out the “real” backstory was nothing like any of us imagined. Which was the whole point.

    I don’t remember the title or the author, but I remember the first line. It went something like, “Fourteen years old and so bored I was combing my hair just for the hell of it.”

  5. Thanks, A, for bringing that out of the closet for writers. I’ve always thought of this as a secret addiction, the product of an overactive imagination, and not something I could share with ANYONE, lest they discover how truly weird I am! (It’s wonderful that your mom can share this with you, and you with her!)
    I don’t have to even see these people, just hearing about them is good enough.
    So, everyone, beware what bits of sand you drop in the oyster!

  6. Great post, Alicia! I think backstory is so important not only for writers and artists but for humanity in general. If people are able to imagine a backstory, like you said, then they would be less apt to get annoyed; they’d be less apt to honk their horns and flip people off while driving. Well, let’s face it, there’s being able to empathize in line at the grocery store and then there’s doing so while driving…two totally different affairs! But I keep working on the latter….

    Like Q, I beleive that everything has a backstory. I find myself wondering about people in photographs and exactly what was happening when the photo was being taken. I also wonder about homeless people…what happened in their lives to bring them to this point. Every experience we have brings us to the current moment, and with backstory comes understanding…and connection too. To the extreme, I’m so sensitive that I move worms that have been washed onto the sidewalk after a rainstorm. I don’t want them to burn up or get trampled on by others who may not be as compassionate, but alas, maybe the worms want to cross the road?! And what if moving a worm separates it from its family…hmmm…sounds like a children’s book in the works!

    Thanks for this reminder. It is a great exercise. If one is stuck, all one has to do is watch, look, listen, and then allow it all to come! And lets face it, people, animals, life, it’s all just so darn interesting!!

  7. Okay Scott, I’m going to run with yours. Thanks for the post Alicia. Anybody want to follow up this little story line?

    To actually have a choice of oranges juices is just too much for poor Len. For a moment he considers breaking the store up, just for the rush. His head is shaved and his goatee is thick. He’s wearing Levis and a blue work shirt. As Len is about to toss the orange juices across the store, a little blond haired boy comes running around the corner right into Len. The little boy looks up at Len with big, blue-eyes and says, “I want you to be my dad.”

  8. When I lived in the city, I often went out to eat alone. Whenever I would see other people alone, I would watch them and make up whole stories for them. Usually they were sad and I would end up feeling sorry for them eating all alone in a restaurant, with no one to go home to, etc. It rarely occurred to me that I was happily eating alone myself.

  9. Great post, Alicia! What a great reminder that everything around us is more interesting than we think.

    I had a creative writing teacher who was a big fan of people watching. He told my short story class that even when writing non-fiction, it’s Ok to add embellished details and back stories to “enrich” the work as a whole. I vividly remember one kid in the class finally bursting, “So, are you saying that all short story writers are liars?” He paused before answering, “No…but all liars are short story writers.”

    I often wonder how shoes…either single sneakers or pairs…get caught on telephone wires.

  10. As a born people watcher I was stunned to realize — after reading the post’s examples — that my backstory files consist of the “good and happy” times in life rather than the painful ones. Hmm, boring? 😉

  11. For BD – About a block from where I live there are at least 6 pairs of shoes hanging from a power line running across the street. Even weirder, this is not an unusual thing to see here in Iquitos, Peru.

    For Greg –
    The little boy’s mother rushed over and grabbed the kid by the arm. “Stop doing that. Your father will be out of jail soon and you will see him again.” Len, noticing that the mom was quite attractive, said, “I could fill in for a while.”

  12. Scott:

    She had brown hair, cut like a boys and jade green-eyes. Her face was so gorgeous that once, she actually caused a car accident. She looked Len up and down, as if to measure him then said, “Don’t say it unless you mean it.”

    Len said, “I mean it,” and held his hand out and said, “I’m Len.”

  13. Len could feel the sweat starting to accumulate under his arms, after all, it had been eight years since he had been with a woman. He had to try to put the prison culture behind him. At least his parole officer would be happy he had a place to stay.
    “I’m Kate and this is Jimmy,” she said.
    “He’s got cool tattoos, mom.”
    “I was in the Navy.” The lies began.

  14. Kate’s not buying it though.
    She looks down at his black prison issue shoes and the thick, harsh lines of the tattoos on his hands and says, “You just got out. It’s all right Len. Come home with us and I’ll make lunch.”
    “I’d really like that,” Len says.
    Jimmy grabs Len’s hand. Len pays for the groceries and they walk into the sunlight. Kate’s car is a red Jeep Cherokee and they drive to her mobile home outside of town. The place is run down and Len notices all the work that needs to be done.

  15. As a firefighter, I have the opportunity to meet a lot of people. Most of the time the people I meet are having a bad day, but that does not stop me and my crew from people watching. I don’t mean we stop performing the task at hand but we always wonder about the backstory of our patient.

    Once, I remember walking into a tenement for a man that was unresponsive. Family members were running around and hysterical! They were literally pushing us into a back bedroom to help their father. Unfortunately, he had passed and the clinical signs of death had already set it. We confirmed his death through the use of an EKG and began to explain to the family there was nothing that we could have done for him. As we said this there was an overwhelming feeling of love that permeated the room. His spouse, children, grandchildren were everywhere in the apartment. After the run, all we could think about is the very large and loving family this man had. We never even learned the man’s name but that he must have been a good father and husband.

    There have been others in my 19 years on the fire department. There was the story of the elderly immigrants from Russia. Who emigrates to start a new life when their in their 80’s?

    I think the funniest story I have witnessed was a call for a domestic dispute very late at night. When we arrived on scene at this modest home we found a husband, wife with a black eye, and a priest with a bloody lip and a visibly upset teenage boy. The priest was over for a cozy dinner with the family. Everyone had a little too much wine and after dessert when the boy and father were tired and went upstairs. The son went back downstairs to get something to drink and caught mom and the priest in an inappropriate act. Well, the husband came down and decided to take matters into his own hands.

    Everybody has a story. Sometimes it’s more fun if we use our imaginations!!!

  16. Len had only been out for a week and everything still seemed twisted ten degrees off center. During lunch he tried to remember how to eat like a gentleman the way his Ma had taught him. He was also worried about making small talk that did not revolve around sex, drugs or violence, but found that Kate made it much easier.
    After lunch Jimmy went to his room, after much protesting, and Kate and Len settled into the living room.
    “Jimmy’s dad isn’t coming home, he got life. I haven’t figured a way to tell him yet. How do you tell a seven year old he’ll never see his dad again?”
    Len’s life flashed before his eyes (really, it did) and his own father and the path that had led him to prison.
    Jimmy stuck his head into the living room. “Hey, Len, you want to play some catch? I’ve got two gloves.”
    “Baseball,” Len whispered to himself, “Sure, kid, let’s play catch.”
    Kate touched Len’s arm and said,”It’s really nice to see you smile.”

    (Bring it on home, Greg.)

  17. Monkeyman: When I worked for the newspaper, the firefighters I got to know seemed highly sensitive to situations, and to other people, generally speaking. They were definitely “caretaker” types. One firefighter told me, “I see people at their worst, but I have to be my best.” The stories you must have …

  18. I have a firefighter story. When I worked Spinal Cord Injury rehab we had a fire captain who had been hospitalized a long time and his benefits were about to run out. The other Phoenix firefighters took turns working the captain’s shifts for him for over a year so he wouldn’t lose his benefits. (They also scared the hell out of us once when a whole bunch of them came onto the unit in full turn-outs. We thought maybe the building was on fire, which is something you really don’t want on a Spinal Cord unit.) Hats off to firefighters.

  19. Len said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

    And they threw the ball back in forth as both Jimmy and Len’s dreams came true at the very same time. Len could hear a big motorcycle coming up the road and at that moment Kate shouted, “Jimmy get in the house!” Then to Len she said, “That’s my brother in-law, he’s going to lose his mind when he sees you.”
    Len asked her, “You want him to go away?”
    “I never want to see that bastard as long as I live,” she said.
    “No problem.”

    The bear-like, bearded man rode an old Harley 1200 chopper up to gravel beside the mobile home and parked his ride.

  20. I kept coming back all day to read the next installment… nice work, guys!
    And Alicia, I love to make up stories about people, too. Has your mom encouraged you to do that since you were small? If so, she must’ve really helped sparked your desire to write fiction.

  21. I’m an expert people watcher. I love to think about what their story might be and just make one up. I do this with my boys. We have the best time and laugh. My DH completely thinks we’ve lost it.

    When I was in high school, ahem…a while ago…20 years!~video cameras where big and I took my parents video camera to the mall every weekend and we would video tape people and make up the story as they were talking with their friends or walking. It’s histerical to watch today. My friend who did it with me is Josh Hopkins who is now an actor in the new series Cougar Town with Courtney Cox. He’s so funny and I told him I’m going to black mail him with the video footage we have. LOL!!!

  22. Scott, Thank you for the tip of the old hat!! For me the fire service has been a vocation that has been very rewarding.. In its simplest form it is a chance to make a small difference in someone’s life. There will always be times of anguish, tragedy, and loss but it also brings about a feeling a communal, and and fraternal happiness too it.

    Alicia, the stories can only be told under the right circumstances!!!!

    Dance with you later!

  23. Len looked up to the sky. “Hey, Greg, Scott, get that guy out of my back story. If I do it I’ll go back to the joint.”

    The bearded rider looked over at Kate, Len and Jimmy and never saw the cement truck.

    Smiling, with one arm around Kate and the other around Jimmy Len said, “Let’s go have some orange juice.”

  24. I have definitely people watched, but back in my acting days I particularly liked to “people listen”. During one period in my life, I used to go to bars on random weeknights when the bars weren’t too crowded, buy myself a drink, and sit in a corner by myself. I kept a little notebook with me and would take notes on the conversations people were having. The tiny details of what people do and say when not experiencing public self-consciousness are the key to art imitating life. This may sound a little creepy, and maybe it was, but it was a treasure trove of creative capital. I sometimes will take a moment when I’m alone to think about what I am doing during some of the “filler” moments of life. Like, when I come home, do i take off my shoes, hang up my keys, and then check the door? Or do I shut the door, kick off my shoes, and toss the keys on the table? The difference between the two may appear to be very subtle, but can convey a lot about my mood and state of mind, even intentions. It’s those details that bring life and depth to the written or performed character.

  25. I do lots of people watching. My mom is my best partner in crime also. There is only one big difference between us and you and that is we don’t think or talk about his present or past, we actually talk about his future with us….. hahahah…. I know we are very bad and rude people, but it is lots of fun! You see, we are no writers, we (my mom and I ) are both engineers and we only look at practicality!!! hahahah

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