Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Writing Wednesdays - Background Characters

So, last week we were looking at main characters and their development over a piece.  Today, I'm going to build on that, by looking at background characters: The individuals who populate the world that your characters inhabit, and that your characters interact with.  Background characters are an entire spectrum - from your protagonist's trusted best friend to a shop keeper who is only in a single scene.

There is one key tip to keep in mind when writing background characters: They don't know that they are background characters.  As far as they are concerned, they are the key character in their life, and they have their own needs and concerns.  They might only feature temporarily in your story, but they are just as developed in their own minds as any other person, including you.  They might be scared of spiders, dream of being a professional dancer, be allergic to peanuts - they have thoughts and feelings, dreams and goals.

That doesn't mean you need to include all of this information in your novel: If you're writing a brief exchange with a shop keeper, you don't want to write a long paragraph explaining their family situation or their ambitions - a slight description of their appearance or tone of voice will be enough.  But knowing that they have these things matters.

When it comes to a background character who repeatedly appears, then you can develop them in the same way you would develop your main character.  For example, if you're writing in a combat zone, the reality of war won't only change how your main character thinks, how they look at the world.  The characters around them, the men and women they are working alongside, would be affected as well, and in a variety of ways: Perhaps some become more confident, others quieter, some suffering from PTSD.  Perhaps one is physically injured, or loses their ability to trust, or has their faith in humanity restored.

Having background characters who are not just cardboard cut outs or caricatures but are instead people makes your writing a lot more interesting to read.   Having them developed also leaves the way open to their use in sequels and further pieces - if they are developed and interesting, then the people reading your story will become invested in them, and want to know what happens to them...

Let’s take Harry Potter as an example of background characters that do fairly well - over the books they grow and develop.  Your main characters are Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, Voldemort, perhaps a few others.  But  offer those who enjoy the stories the chance to read about what happens next to Neville, or to Luna, and many will be delighted at the opportunity - they care about these characters just as much as the 'stars' of the book.

Next week, I'm going to build on the idea I just mentioned, to look not at your own characters but other peoples', as I take a look at writing fanfiction.  I'll see you then!

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