Here in the midwest, we have a reputation for minding our own business. We don’t. We just tend not to ask direct questions. That doesn’t mean we won’t go ask somebody else, or pump somebody for information and then put two and two together. Sherlock Holmes and Homeland Security got nothin’ on us.
Writers have a reputation for loving to people-watch. This is true. It’s an occupational hazard: We’re always looking for interesting looks, walks, tics, clothes, hair, accessories, non-verbal communication cues, and verbal eccentricities.
My pal, Western writer Ralph Cotton, used to run his own riff on both of these, with the added benefit of practicing characterization.
He would watch people in public — people he didn’t know — and totally invent backstories for them, right on the spot.
More fun than that was when he’d grab a couple of props, change his posture and even his voice, and narrate an invented backstory for himself. Here’s an example I’m making up to give you a feel for the kind of thing I mean: “I’m Billy-Bob Gorton. Used to be a child evangelist until I hit puberty. I got Missy there with child. She’s the only daughter of Mayor Dubuque, mayor-for-life of this medium-sized town in Idaho; he’s also the king of the numbers racket in that whole county. So we had to get married. I don’t drink, but see how I’m wrapping my hand around this Coke can? I’m hoping everybody’ll think it’s a beer, ’cause I don’t want people to know I don’t drink.”
Only Ralph’s inventions were much better than that.
I really can’t recommend this exercise highly enough. It’s much more fun than really digging the dirt on people, not to mention safer and easier. It’s great practice at fitting together backstory, visual and verbal cues, and interpretation/misinterpretation. Is that scowl because the guy’s wife said something that pushed a button, and there’ll be tears before bedtime, or is the sun just in his eyes? Did that woman’s strap slip by accident, or did she make it happen in order to be alluring? Is that kid really polite, or an Eddie Haskell?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Look at someone or a group you don’t know, and invent a backstory for them, complete with interpersonal relationships.