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?