- July 15, 2019
The world is full of people: us, our family, our friends, our coworkers, all of their friends, family, and coworkers, and so on. There are people we interact with only a few times in short bursts: customers, grocery store checkers, bank tellers, delivery people, and more. There are even many more people that we never speak to in our lives but see only in passing.
Every single one of those people has a rich, storied history, a lifetime of experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
How many times have you read a story or watched a show where an unnamed character enters a location, delivers a line of vital importance to the protagonist, and then wanders off into oblivion, never to return? Sometimes, that’s fine. But sometimes it feels like everyone in the story exists to serve the protagonist’s needs—and that’s simply not the reality of the world. Just because a character is not the focal point of a story doesn’t mean they need to be relegated to a faceless, nameless nobody.
Today we’re going to talk about turning those flat, two-dimensional characters into three-dimensional human beings. Does it feel like your own writing is full of flat messengers who could be easily replaced by anyone or anything else? How can we add depth to less key characters? And why does it matter? Let’s find out.
The State of the World
Much as we may be loathe to admit, the world does not revolve around us. There are people all over the world living as the protagonists of their own stories. Similarly, though our stories focus on a single character or group of characters, the world does not exist solely for them! Your characters are part of the world around them, and how they interact with that world tells as much about the character as it does the world of the story—a little circular, but true! And part of the world of your story is its people.
On a larger scale, culture will tell you about a group of people. What are their beliefs? What do they value? What materials do they have access to? Where and how do they live? What do they eat? How do they dress? If you’re writing a story close to the current time or a nearby location, there is less to fabricate, but no less to focus on! Make sure you’re aware of the world at large, so the background characters fit into it. You wouldn’t have a man wearing a tailor-made suit on an island without access to the materials to make said suit—unless that man is meant to stand out.
“What’s My Motivation?”
The key to success for any character, minor or major, in any scene is motivation. Why are they there, and what do they want? Your protagonist’s goals are clear, but what about secondary and more minor characters? Do they want to help the protagonist, or do they have their own agenda? Are they involved with the plot at large, or are they simply doing their job? Even if they’re just there for a job, are they doing it well? Do they want to excel? Do they want to go home? Do they want to support someone or something? A character’s motivation is everything, and even that can contribute to a character’s depth.
Consider the following example: the protagonist of a story is a young woman looking for her older sister. She has received an anonymous message from someone who claims to know where her sister went, but insists they meet at a hotel to discuss the information. When our protagonist arrives at the hotel, there are people in the lobby. Who are they? Why are they there? Perhaps a family is on vacation. A person is on a business trip. A pair of lovers is looking for a room. Though not clearly defined, these people have reason to be where they are.
The Devil is in the Details
The world is moving around while your protagonist is acting. Certainly, the actions of the protagonist have an effect on the world around them—that’s part of the plot. But before that action, as they’re acting, and the results of those actions play into and color the world they exist in.
Even small details can go a long way to adding depth. Start with the physical. How do your background characters look? How old are they? How do they wear their hair? What is the state of their clothing? Are they trying to blend in or stand out from the crowd? Do they have anything with them?
For example, think of our hotel. The family on vacation is wearing swimsuits. They are holding towels, flotation devices, and a large travel bag. The father has sunscreen on his nose, the mother has a large hat and sunglasses, and the teenage daughter is texting on her phone while her younger brother tells a story about the last time he went swimming. The man on the business trip is wearing a tailored suit. He is freshly-shaved and his hair is slicked back. He carries a suitcase. The lovers, a younger pair, look like they’re dressed for a date in nice but cheap clothing, and are carrying a small bag.
From appearance, look into mannerisms. What is their general mood? Do they want to be where they are? Are they bored or focused? Are they waiting for something or are they performing a task? Are they confident or are they nervous?
The parents of the vacationing family seem hurried. Their son is excited and jumping around, and they don’t want him to get hurt. The teenage daughter does not want to be out with her family, so she does not lift her eyes from her phone. The man with the suitcase is looking at his watch as he reads the newspaper. Repeatedly. He seems to be waiting for something or someone—perhaps our protagonist? The young couple keeps looking around, like they expect to see someone they know. They hold hands tightly and try to stay off to the side of the room.
There is much that we don’t know about these people. We don’t know their names, where they’re from, and so much more. But seeing what they’re doing and how they’re behaving shows us a lot more than if we simply read, “There were people in the lobby,” and in turn, that anchors the world of the protagonist a little more to reality.
…But the Details Can Be Distracting
We have a general idea about what our background characters are doing now, but there’s very much we don’t know, like that the vacationing parents recently got into a big argument that the teenage girl overheard, hence her retreating to her phone. We don’t know that the man on the business trip has time to meet with an old friend he has sorely missed, and that’s why he keeps checking his watch. We don’t know that the young couple has pretended to break up to appease their friends and parents but is still meeting in secret as a result, or that they can only barely afford this room.
And that’s okay. We don’t need to know those things necessarily. At least, our readers don’t. Too much information can pull the story away from the protagonist. As writers, we strive to strike the perfect balance between “too much” and “not enough” information. Too much information can be boring; too little, confusing. Not every background character needs a three-page spreadsheet of their likes, dislikes, favorite candy, blood type, what they had for breakfast, how they like their coffee…but there needs to be enough information to justify their presence in the scene. You don’t have to create a portfolio of information; give your background characters a sentence or three that answers these questions: who are they, what do they want, and what are they doing about it?
Why It Matters
So why bother creating all these details that might not even come up or be needed?
A story is more than just a story—it’s an entire world. Background characters carry the unique responsibility of being people who are also part of setting. Our hotel example shows us, based on the people in it, that this location is legitimate: families feel safe coming here, and there is an outdoor area that’s safe to swim in nearby. The businessman tells us there are likely large businesses nearby and that trips are endemic to their business model. The lovers are near enough to home that they expect locals to discover them, so this place may be frequented by the people that live nearby.
There is an atmosphere of safety, but also one of tension—the family wants to be somewhere else, the man is anticipating something happening, and the lovers are nervous they’ll be spotted. The people tell us nothing reasonably life-threatening might happen here, but they also create a chaotic background against which our protagonist’s anxiety could be amplified. In simply being people, they communicate a wealth of information without being the focus of the story. Additionally, what your protagonist notices or even doesn’t notice about the people around them adds to the protagonist’s characterization. Are they attentive? Are they distracted? Do they look to help others or focus on their own tasks? Unless your protagonist has an environment to act in, these details can’t be known.
When background characters are not given depth, the world is incomplete, and the story suffers. Three-dimensional background characters enrich the world they belong to, they provide essential grounding details that tether the story to reality, and they help both the reader and the protagonist navigate the world in which the story takes place. They don’t have to be front and center, but if they’re absent or lacking depth, your story will hurt for it.
Best Practices to Avoid…
We’ve touched on it a little, but there are a couple things to look out for that can help your background characters shine (not too brightly, of course!).
Avoid info-dumping. Writing is a tricky business, because unlike more visual media like film, we must use words to describe everything. Therefore, you have to choose carefully what information is included to characterize and add depth without over-saturating the reader. Make sure you are not telling the background characters’ life stories, unless you really need to, or you’ll lose the moment.
Avoid over-description. We don’t need to know the height, weight, shoe size, nail polish color, hairstyle, etc, etc of every character. Our focus
Avoid clustering information. We need enough information to describe a background character and identify their motive, but even that doesn’t need to be done all at once. Look at the scene holistically. Unless your protagonist is doing a sweep of the room from left to right, not all the details of a location are immediately noticed. Or, in a setup for dramatic irony, there may be details pointed out to the reader that the protagonist has yet to become aware of.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and populate your world! The world needs your story!