Everything—from movies to novels to video games—has its NPCs, the people who weave in and out of the story for one purpose and one purpose only: to usher it along.
Yet this doesn’t mean background characters are unimportant. In part 1 of this two-part series, I’ve teamed up with R.R. Willica, author of the Darkness Falling Trilogy, to talk about our experiences both creating background characters, and dealing with those we’ve already written.
Do you consciously choose the race, gender, ethnicity, etc. of your background characters?
R: It all depends on the point I’m trying to get across. Like the best sniper shooter is this little petite girl who is star struck by the MCs. I did that on purpose.
S: I’ll say straight out that unless the plot is served better by having a character be male or it would be unrealistic to have a woman in that part, my background characters are default female, because I feel too often the default human in American society is male.
R: For my novel Darkness Falling [set in a different universe than this one] the society is kind of crappy. A bunch of background people are male because in this universe it’s more expensive to educate a girl for a job, etc. (This all gets pointed out.) The farther you get from the center of the Empire, the more equality there is.
The race of the Empire, are kind of an Asian/Native American type colorations. The leaders of the Resistance are all of African American type coloration. The most recent acquisition of the Empire is more Polynesian. Then there’s a Scandinavian type people who are slaves and also a European type people as well.
But their appearances don’t actually play into it so much as the Imperials base everything on clan lineage, and if you’re not a member of a named clan you’re lesser and a slave. And I did do that on purpose. Even the “free citizens” of other places don’t have the same rights as one of the named.
S: I started out with writing What Boys Are Made Of. It takes place in southeast Ohio, which is part of northern Appalachia, and is a pretty white place. Minorities are definitely minorities here. With that in mind, the first book is mostly white—background characters and all.
But I can’t say that was terribly deliberate, more a reflection of where I grew up. Like my hometown, that book has a couple African American characters and there’s a bit of crap between the Protestants and the Catholics, but that’s more something you have to read into to realize is happening.
R: I find it’s easy to default to white, not because of any other reason that it’s what I know. But from the very start when I was seventeen I wanted to have diversity in race and make it different than Earth. Making my book take place somewhere else gives me the freedom to make the rules.
S: Changing locations is what made it more imperative to have a diverse cast, for me. In book 2 The Mercy of Men and onwards, the main action has moved to a big city. In an effort to have more People of color, I made a random landlord Indian. And then his cousin who owns another building was also Indian. And then the cousin’s wife became a main character, and she’s Indian too, so that was a challenge for me. But, you know, that’s life.
R: Suddenly you have an Indian cast and a lot of research.
S: Exactly. I wanted to get away from was defaulting to one race, but then I found myself neck deep in traditional Hindu funeral rites going “How did I get here?”
R: I think that’s why people default to their own culture. It’s not really about race or anything, but comfort zones.
S: And fear of getting it wrong without even realizing it and making a mess of things.
Do you have a character who has a backstory that you chose not to share it with the audience?
R: All characters need some sort of background to determine motivation. It doesn’t have to be complex or shared with the readers, but at least for your reference.
There was a car salesman who was a cowardly slime. He’s the only one who turns my protagonists in to the authorities when he encounters them. It’s because his own father was once roughed up by the authorities over something small, and he lives in fear. He’s only in one scene, but having that drives his motivation. It was for my own benefit as the writer.
S: I’m the opposite. My background people have a tendency to be conveniences until I need something more from them, and then I examine what they’ve done and how they’ve spoken and find a story that fits.
For example, there are three background characters who work for a cartel, and at first they just were there to be yes men, but as time went on I needed them more and more. They grew and I had to consider who were these people, really?
R: My whole thing is asking yourself “why,” right? I used to just write things because they sounded cool or I needed to write something. My characters were props. So now I always ask “why would that happen? Or why would they do that?”
I think it’s good we can focus on two different strategies.
S: Definitely different strategies. Mine is: “Look what they did, who does that make them?”
R: Mine is more like “he’s going to do this, but why?” If I can’t come up with a good answer, then maybe it doesn’t make sense to do that. I think both are good.
S: I wonder if that points to deeper philosophies, or is just more a convenience of writing.
R: Maybe. It’s probably based on experiences. I started doing it because people in my life started questioning my motivations and accusing me of things. My own self-examination then turned into me questioning other things.
When I went back to my book after a ten-year hiatus I was shocked at how much I hadn’t questioned motivations in the past and there were so many plot holes and things that didn’t make sense.
S: Whereas in my life I’ve come to the conclusion that actions speak far louder than words, and so what the character thinks influences them is too often a lie, or just what they like to think, but proof is in the pudding.
R: The main thing is, whether a background is there or not, it’s important not to let them trample over everything like an angry elephant.
Have you ever had a background character try to push to the forefront?
R: No, but I’m very strict with them. I do have a POV character who wants her own book, though.
S: I had a PoV character I had to cut, so I gave him his own book (which was really fun, by the way). But more I’ve had background characters who I’ve realized are destined for bigger things and so have brought to the surface.
I wouldn’t say they pushed their way up—I have too many mains for there to be room for that—but they began growing and I realized I needed to make them a real person in pretty short order.
R: During my revision I gave some characters new hats. They moved from one place to another. Also they were given bigger roles. But, all of my characters used to be props and pretty flat, so even my POV people were given makeovers.
My protagonist went from worrying about if she was pretty to being angry when people make decisions for her. Everyone is smarter. One guy went from being just kind of there to showing he actually is a big worrier. Oh, the character who travels with my two mains gained a huge dose of cheerfulness, optimism, and likes to joke around.
Everyone made big changes really.
S: I’ve found the same when my background people transition to larger parts; the little things they do just grow into bigger things. Quiet guy who follows rules and smokes a lot turns out to be quiet guy who follows rules because he has no conscience. At all.
R: The foundations were there already. I just had to let them shine through. It happened organically. Ten years of waiting to edit made it so easy for me to see the problems.
S: I wait a month and I think that’s handy. Ten years is a lot of time for growth.
R: It’s like we get to know them even when not writing them.
S: Or like how we can look back at high school and suddenly go “hey, that person had a crush on me!”
R: Yeah or “that bully was probably being neglected at home.”
S: Or “actually, that teacher wasn’t cool, he was a massive dick.”
R: “That teacher wasn’t nice; he was totally creepy.” Or “now I know why the lunch lady was so angry.”
[Insert a continuation along those lines of things we’ve since realized from our childhoods. Hindsight 20/20!]
How about you? To re-ask the three questions above, do you consciously choose the race, gender, ethnicity, etc. of your background characters? Do you have a character with a backstory you choose not to share? Have you ever had a background character try to push to the forefront? Let us know your thoughts below!
Next Saturday, R.R. Willica and I will move from discussing background characters to those at the forefront. What does it take to make a main character? What’s the difference between a main character and a not-background-character? Check it out next week!
EDIT: You an also now read this excellent reply post on The Muse’s Lair, where Anna Humphrey answers the questions above.
Thanks for reading!