Background Characters: Sharing the Love

Recently I’ve been reading HARD. By which I mean I’ve been reading lots every day. I have an audiobook on while I do housework, eat breakfast, and walk, and at least 2 other books on the go. That’s not to mention the short stories I like to wake up to… It’s a lot, but there are a lot of stories out there to read, from both the literary giants and the first-time indie authors.

As you might expect, some books I like a lot more than others, and sometimes I come across something which makes me reconsider my own approach to writing. So, while I continue work on the third and final part of my epic fantasy series, The Heritage Saga, I thought I’d share with you some thoughts on the topic of background characters. Perhaps my thoughts may help you make better use of your own background characters.

Background characters can come in all shapes and sizes. From those who exist only for a scene to those who appear in many, and even contribute to the narrative or character arcs in some way. For our purposes I’ll be talking about those who, in some way, interact with the main cast, although I think a lot of this is transferable to more minor characters.

There are lots of great background characters in TV and film. Shows like Breaking Bad, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and even The Simpsons use background characters for a range of things, from comedy to soft exposition. But while I believe writers of books can learn a lot from script writers—after all, we are all storytellers—background characters tend to be harder to deal with in books, so perhaps we’d be better off focusing on that for the time being.

A great way they can be used is in the context of a group. Brandon Sanderson does a really good job of this in The Final Empire. Kelsier’s crew consists of lots of members, each with different abilities—Mistings, Keepers, Kandra, and, of course, Mistborn. Many of them maintain relevance while being little more than a whisper for much of the book, yet we learn so much about Allomancy and Feruchemy from the whole crew.

Stephen King does a great thing with background characters in IT. When we reach the end of the book and see (spoilers) the town getting suitably destroyed, every character mentioned we empathise with. We know them, we care, and their place in the story (mostly) makes sense. Of course, it should be noted that he did this in a little under 500,000 words, which is an insane word count!

But how can we make our background characters useful—likeable, even? Aside from trying to emulate our heroes, which is definitely a great way to learn, I think there are a few things we can try. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my take on the topic.

The first, and perhaps easiest, method is to play with their dialogue. Something as simple as a lisp or a stutter can help to give them depth and personality, even for the most minor of characters. Of course, you can push this further with things like grammar and dialect. So long as you remain consistent with it, this can be a really powerful technique and help build up these characters in a more interesting way.

Another great thing to do is to make use of your narrator’s voice, regardless of whether they’re reliable or not. Phrases like “as he usually did” make someone’s actions feel more familiar, and that makes us care about the characters just a little more. You can even lay some exposition in these places by highlighting attributes about them which are shared by others in their position. Maybe they’re a security guard in some dystopian world, in which case the things they do can teach us about how security guards are all trained and can highlight that aspect of the world.

The third thing I’d like to mention are the actions your background characters take. Say we have one of those security guards again and something explodes nearby, do they leave their post? Do they even flinch? Perhaps a member of your crew often has their fists clenched, or is perpetually checking themselves in a mirror. Whatever it is, just a mention here or there can help build up a vivid image of them in very little time.

My last thought helps to tie the other three together, and that is personality. Think about some personality traits for those background characters. These will help you write actions, dialogue, and so much more about them and help you build up that all-important character. If they’re a trickster or a hopeless romantic, maybe drop a few hints, sprinkle them throughout your narrative like a chef sprinkles salt on food (perhaps a little less liberally than that, come to think of it).

You don’t have to put all of this into your work, in fact it would likely make your book a little on the chunky side if you did, but I do believe an author should know a lot more about their story than they teach the readers. Background characters are just one of many aspects of your story which can help bring it to life, and knowing just a little more about who they are will help you craft a more well-rounded group.

These are just a few of my thoughts on the matter, and I fully recognise that this is neither exhaustive nor definitive. What are your thoughts? I’d love to know how you deal with background characters, and which are your favourites, both in books and on screen. Get in touch via the comments, email, or social media—I’d love to hear from you!

Background Characters: Sharing the Love

  1. I’m not on Facebook, but I think, no matter the platform, there is always an interesting conversation to be had,…

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Published by cbpowellwrites

I'm a writer of science-fiction, fantasy epics, and other speculative fiction works and have a little blog focused on writing and how to become a better writer. Hopefully it is helpful to others, and I'd love to hear more feedback and have more in-depth discussions on all thing creativity. Before turning to writing I worked for a number of years as a chef, following on from my time as a writing and performing guitarist in the South West of England. Perhaps I will upload some music from these days at some point...

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