Do yourself a favor, plug in an old movie. Say…The Quiet Man with John Wayne or another favorite. But watch the movie from a different perspective. Take note of every background character. The waitress, the train conductor, the man in the street. Even if they only have one line. Especially if they have only one line.
Did the waitress just walk up and say, “Can I take your order?” Did the train conductor simply say, “Tickets, please”?
No. These characters had…character. They were lively, over the top. Someone you’d never meet in real life, but would love to. Pick any movie, but especially old ones where they relied entirely on acting, having no special effects to grab the attention of viewers.
Now let’s take a look at our manuscripts. Find those one-line characters. Is your waitress a bubbly redhead with a white apron who performs her job perfectly? Can we stop, please? Let’s give her a short hair cut, die it purple. How about a tattoo of a pig on her arm with “Last Boyfriend” written underneath, and have her walk up to the table and say, “I have band rehearsal in ten minutes so I think you’ll have the number five and…yeah…you’ll want the diet Coke.”
Understand, she has nothing to do with the plot. Giving her this little attitude will not force you to rewrite twenty-three chapters. But your readers will get a little boost in an otherwise drab moment. The character may make them laugh, make them angry, disgust them. It doesn’t matter. A background character has the potential to add another layer of depth to your novel that you cannot get from primary characters, scenery, or even beautiful prose. Readers want to read about people. So give ’em more people. But give ’em interesting people.
Your mission today, if you choose to accept it, is to go through your manuscript and find a background character. Now turn her into someone memorable. I’d love to hear what you came up with. Go ahead and post your before and after portrayal of this character.