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Major characters might get all the flashy moments, but it’s often the background characters who get to say what most of us would be thinking in real life. There’s an art to writing background characters, and when done right, they stick in readers’ minds and become some of the most popular characters in the story.
What Is a Background Character?
A background character—also called a secondary or supporting character—includes anything from prominent sidekicks to unnamed minor characters. In high fantasy, for example, readers will be expecting elderly, magical helpers, while in crime dramas, a sidekick is often a flat character who supports the central character—like an impatient police chief or a well-meaning but clueless intern.
How Do Background Characters Serve a Story?
While the villain will define the forces that antagonize your hero, a sidekick or minor character will help the reader understand the hero’s strengths and motivations. This person can be a mentor or a friend, a romantic interest or a helper of some kind. These secondary characters serve the vital functions of assisting the hero with alternate skill sets, giving the hero a sounding board or emotional support, getting themselves into trouble so that the hero must rescue them, and even providing comic relief. When you’ve got subplots for secondary characters, you create more places for suspense and raise questions in the reader’s mind about how the various stories might be related.
5 Tips for Writing Background Characters
In fiction writing, there are two types of characters—flat and round. A round character (think your major characters) has more complexity. A flat character is easy to spot, as they only have one or two characteristics that are relevant to the story. They are static characters by nature, meaning they do not tend to change over the course of a story. That doesn’t mean your supporting characters will be left out in the cold when it comes to the details: It all has to do with what and how much you reveal, and when. Not all minor characters are flat—even a bit part may have something memorable to contribute to the storyline. Here are some tips for creating rich background characters:
- Let them develop naturally. Don’t worry about creating your secondary characters upfront—it can be overwhelming. Just focus on the things you need in the moment, and let yourself develop characters as you go along. Many times, they will emerge during the writing of a novel. When these types of characters evolve, you’ll get to know them as you proceed
- Give them readily identifiable character traits. Ideally, your most important characters will be distinct enough to be memorable, but for all those minor characters who are emerging in your novel, it’s good practice to provide hints that will help the reader distinguish who each character is, so they can remember their various story arcs. That might be unique personality traits or a particular name. In other cases, a minor character may be best known by a single life event from their backstory, such as “the girl whose family died” or “the widower.”
- Make them oppositional. Some of the best sidekicks or background characters in literature will even undermine the protagonist. Think of Dr. Watson chastising Sherlock Holmes for his drug use. Giving secondary characters opposing points of view allows you to explore your subjects, settings, and moral gray areas from a wider variety of perspectives, which sustains complexity and keeps the reader interested. Consider letting your characters have pre-existing histories. This creates space for the reader to grow curious and even generate assumptions about their relationship.
- Make them useful. At times, you may choose to write from the point of view of a secondary or unimportant character—a security guard, for example, instead of your main character. This secondary character’s curiosity or confusion can guide the reader to ask the questions you want them to ask. Perhaps your main character knows something you don’t want the reader to learn yet. The secondary character doesn’t know the information, so narrating from their point of view allows you to withhold the information from the reader in a plausible way.
- Keep track of them. A character chart or web can help you understand the characters’ relationships with one another and to historical moments relevant to them. It will likely be most useful once you have at least a few chapters of a novel draft, and a sense of who populates the world of your book. If you are just beginning a longer story or novel project, focus on your favorite characters, and permit yourself not to know the full cast of characters yet. At this stage, you may want to keep the chart nearby as you draft, filling it out as you go with character development for the ones you know best, and adding as you learn more about your fictional world.
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