I sit in the corner of a bookstore coffee shop. People are scattered across the room, sitting at tables and chairs, clicking away on computers or tablets and chatting pleasantly. It’s cold this weekend. Flannels and jackets abound, slung over the backs of chairs or stuffed inside bulging backpacks.
There’s the inevitable loner reading by herself, tucked away in the corner, legs kicked over the arm of a chair while sipping her coffee.
Over behind the counter, baristas bustle around, sliding past each other, smiling and calling out names of those who have already ordered.
All of this happens effortlessly, without a thought.
In a world where day to day events are often seemingly arbitrary, it can be easy to tune out those around us. People that fill our lives come and go, all without appropriate introductions or descriptions of appearance. They walk in, sit down, and are promptly forgotten.
In our world, this is only natural. Though one should never tune out those around him, it is a simple fact that he will not be able to know every person he comes into contact with on a personal level.
However, when writing fiction, this should never be the case.
Fiction is about characters. It is all about characters. Worlds of His Own certainly has a world-building focus to it, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how interesting your world is. Without interesting characters that live in it, it will remain as flat as a scrap of paper.
It doesn’t matter if you have the landscape planned out to the acre, the economy of a sweeping social hierarchy, the civilization and culture of an epic. If nobody’s home, it’s futile.
Sure, there are main characters. That’s a start. But a world constitutes (usually) a place where millions, maybe even billions of people live. You need more than your main characters.
I’ll call these background characters. These are the people in the bookstore that sit and read and talk pleasantly to one another. These are the people we seem to tune out.
In a sense, these background characters are stereotypes. They have their “generic” interests, i.e. reading, homework, coffee, etc. A certain amount of stereotype is allowed, but really, every character should have some sort of personal history. A back story, if you will. They should have a reason for being where they are.
The question is then, how do we make these background characters interesting when they’re only in, you know, the background?
Here are a few ways:
Roz Morris says, “You don’t have to tell us every detail. Indeed, if you pay out background in glimpses, you can create more depth because you let the reader use intuition.”
The keyword here is intuition. Don’t underestimate its power. If you provide the right details, the reader will fill in the gaps. In other words, I don’t have to go through and describe the make, design, color, and shape of every single table in the coffee shop. Everyone has been to a coffee shop at some point in their life. They can picture what it looks like. Rather, I focus more on the people that are there. Those are details that will make the image stick and give those background characters their reasons for being there.
I’m coining this the “wide angled lens” approach. Think about it: when you walk into a bookstore, you take in everything first before sitting down. Even if it’s not completely intentional, you gain at least a minimal sense of the territory before focusing in on something specific.
Maybe your main character is meeting someone there. That’s fine, but he should at least be conscious of the fact that there are other people in the room besides himself and the person he’s meeting. If he’s not aware of this fact, there should be a reason why.
If you’re really having trouble thinking about what all is happening in your scene, here are 21 writing prompts to help you set it up.
I did this myself when I wrote this post. I sat in a bookstore and watched what happened around me. No, not everything came out in crystal clear detail, but I absorbed it all. Whether I knew how to perfectly describe every little thing that happened doesn’t matter. The scene is in my mind. I can always access it later. Who was doing what, what was their mood like, why were they there? These are all excellent details to pull from when you need them.
When you’re in the midst of the construction project called world building, I encourage you to make some interesting people too. Show us who they are, what they do, what they like, why they’re here. Remember: every character you create, in some way, shape, or form embodies a part of you.
And you are, after all, a very interesting person yourself.