If I were to ask you what characters stand out in your memory as your favorites, chances are that many of them are not story protagonists. Often they are background characters. The snarky waitress. The crazy cat-lady aunt. The kid who launched the first volley in a cafeteria food fight.
Oh wait. Those are real people I’m thinking of. Not characters in a book at all.
Which is where we tend to miss out on the obvious. Those delicious freebies that our real life experiences hands us.
Best friends hold special places in our hearts. Just like protagonists. They’re in for the long haul, so they can’t be too quirky or over the top. There’s only so much of that kid you can take. One food fight is enough to last our entire school careers, thank you kindly.
But those oddballs do stand out. They add sparks of color and light along life’s way. They only come up during reunions or Christmas gatherings. The emotion they triggered during their brief flight through your life can be recalled whenever the situation demands it.
These sparks will work in your novels, too. If the rest of the story doesn’t stand out, good as it may be, one background character can be the reason your readers talk about your book.
Do this. Make a list of some of the odd people you’ve run into during your life, those you’ve only known a few moments or occasionally seen over a longer period of time. Here’s mine:
- The woman in Grand Central Station who let her sweatered dog rub on my legs like he was a cat.
- The kid in my junior high school who occasionally wore a superman cape to school (and survived).
- The flight attendant who got entirely too forceful with a guy who complained about the delay on the tarmac (I call it 9-11 syndrome).
- The woman at a northern Michigan bar who only took her oxygen mask off long enough to smoke another cigarette.
- My cousin’s six year old son, who insistently announced a family meeting while we were all gathered at my parent’s house.
- The guy on a New York train who stared at someone across from him and seemed to mouth some sort of curse (really, you can find plenty of material on New York trains and subways).
- The cashier at our supermarket who always complains about the person who was just ahead of me (making me wonder what she said about me to the person behind me).
Given time, I could come up with pages of people who’ve stood out for a brief moment during my life. So can you. These are your models for background characters whenever you need them. They’re quirky and fun and, more importantly, believable because we’ve all known people like this.
Make your list. Keep it handy. The next time you need a waitress or cab driver for a few sentences in your scene, pull out a good candidate.