Practically every day for at least six months and probably a year, I’ve crossed paths with the same guy on the way to and from work, always going in opposite directions. I don’t know why I first noticed him, but once I had that was it, I started musing on his backstory, trying to piece together his life from the glimpses I see. There are other regulars I see a couple of times a week, in the bus queue, from the bus as they walk between the tall office-blocks, on my walk through town. I wonder about them too, and use whatever clues there are to guess at their backgrounds: from a haircut, a suit, and a way of holding a cigarette, one man became a failed 1970s footballer, a rising star that injury relegated to the second division until he finally retired, bitter and poor, his dreams shattered. I sometimes wonder if any of them notice me, and if they do, what history do they give me?
Apart from showing how nosy I can be, this also illustrates one way that stories come about. People-watching is an interesting pastime in itself, but if you’re looking for inspiration for a character or a plot, noticing the way someone dresses and moves or where they go can work wonders. I’m not suggesting stalking, but if you’re in a bus queue with a view down the street, think of a reason why that person went into Pizza Hut and not the independent Italian restaurant three doors along, consider what the suit and sneakers look makes you think about them, analyse why you immediately assumed they were married. If a detail of dress can suggest so much to you, could it do the same for your readers?
Moving around a city full of strangers, familiar or otherwise, can make you realise how connected we can be – how many times has a distinctive characteristic made you realise you’ve seen that same person in three different shops and on the bus today? The interwoven threads of a film like Pulp Fiction seem quite natural (leaving aside the heavy use of expletives and guns. Though maybe that depends where you live) and you realise that we’re all characters in someone else’s story, from the starring role opposite friends and relatives, to the non-speaking unnamed door-opener for the old lady who was struggling with her shopping. What a responsibility.