You’ve developed your plot, you have your characters ready to go, you’re secondary characters are standing in the wings, and your settings are all created. As you write your story, you feel like something is missing. Or rather, someone is missing. In the movie industry they are known as “extras”.
“Wait, where are the others?”
When I wrote The Askinar Towers trilogy I neglected background characters in most of the story. Yes, there were also patrons in the Floor 17 Café as I had mentioned them; there were other citizens of the town of Rising Falls and the village of Greenblade Valley. But what I seriously overlooked were the people inside the towers themselves. Four towers are featured with a hundred floors in each, all-glass walkways that connect the towers, and elevators in each tower. Yet when my main characters went from one floor to the next or crossed the walkways, they didn’t pass anyone!
Oftentimes when we are writing our story we focus on our MC (Main Character), the supporting characters, the setting, and the plot itself. We overlook those bit players who round out the story. Even if none of them have names, there should be people present in various scenes. Just because your MC and his companions are driving from Phoenix to Tucson always keep in mind that there are others on the road with him.
“He was there, here’s further proof”
In book 1, Nexus of the Worlds, my characters are being chased by someone they refer to as the Robed Figure. Nothing could be seen of this individual; no hands, feet, or face. By the end of book 1 they learn that it he is a shapeshifter who prefers the nonhuman disguise of a raven.
In book 2 my characters find themselves in 1970s Washington D.C. in time for the presidential inauguration. The climax of the scene is on stage when not one but three people who look like President-elect William Franklin. The characters conclude that one of the three was the shapeshifter and to create further proof, I added the following scene…
As the crowd departed from the steps of the Capitol building, a worried mother was trying to drag her daughter back to the car. “I’m tired of your little games,” she said.
“But, I swear mamma!” cried the little girl. “I saw the president turn into a large black bird and fly away!”
“You’ve been out in the cold too long,” the mother said. “We need to get you indoors.”
From this scene, featuring two extras, we see additional proof that one of the three presidents was indeed the shapeshifter. It may not have been necessary, but it added a little humor to an otherwise intense scene.
“You mentioned them in book 1, where are they?”
In Vol. 2 of “Happy to Serve”, my current WIP (Work In Progress), the Floor 17 Café provides live entertainment sometimes on the weekend. At the very end of book 1, the maître D and new owner, Maurice announced that they were going to feature one 4th year student from the Academy of the Seven Spires each month to entertain and help them improve their skills and get them a gig or two to mention on their resume or letter of introduction.
I wrote the first draft of Vol. 2 last November and shelved the project for several months to attempt other writings. When I started to look over book 1 and then moved on to book 2 I got the motivation to continue the work. It was then that I noticed the omission of those 4th year students. I featured another guy, Vincent Singer, who was a 4th year student and then graduated, but I forgot what Maurice announced.
I created two new characters to fill this idea and even though they have names and bard skills, they are nothing more than background characters because they will be mentioned but not necessarily seen. That is where background characters can play a special role. Not only do you have a performer come in but you’ll have more characters in the scene to watch that performer. Perhaps one of them is an owner of another tavern who wants to book that singer for his own place. Maybe the singer’s mother is there and is upset because she believes her child is wasting her time performing when he should be on the farm helping with the chores. And so on.
Three Simple Words and other suggestions
One of the easiest ways to get your readers to understand that there are others present in your scene is a simple phrase like, the crowd roared. Three simple words to let the reader know that your characters aren’t the only ones present. Whether they are in a stadium or a theater, this phrase will serve as a simple reminder that extras are present.
In Happy to Serve, the entire book is a series of blog posts from Chuck the Waiter. As entertaining as the characters and the storylines were I always felt something was missing. When I looked at real blogs a great idea hit me. I needed a comments section to have characters make reference to the post. In addition to the standard characters in the Floor 17 Café, I created a series of others who weren’t necessarily patrons but who worked in one of the towers and faithfully followed Chuck’s blog. I had Brenda the librarian who had trouble getting away from her work to visit; Teven, a Money Exchange teller who worked for the Askinar Towers Bank and Money Exchange; and a person known only as KittyKat98. She started out as a fan and by the end of the book she became an obsessive stalker. She will go on to appear in book 2 as the villain.
Some ideas for your own background characters would be: a guy who’s car broke down on the side of the road and is fixing a flat or talking to the tow truck driver, a mother coming out of a grocery store with a full cart and two crying children holding on to her jacket, a funeral procession going through as your MC is waiting at an intersection, a group of construction men taking a short break on the side of freeway.
As stated before, these characters don’t need names, and don’t necessarily need to speak, but their presence lends to the setting and prove that your MC and his companions aren’t the only ones present.
For further ideas and suggestions of background characters, check out the Urban and Rural setting Thesauruses by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. We’ll look at improving your settings in a future article. What do you do to create background characters? Is there a phrase you use or have read that instantly signifies people? Share with me what you’ve used in the comments section below.