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Posts Tagged ‘sub-characters’

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Everything and everyone in a story should be there for a purpose, however small it may be. It might not seem relevant until chapters, or even books, later, but your divine purpose is there.

If a scene or character is truly irrelevant, they can graciously be cut. In addition to setting a scene or mood, or moving it along (whatever would have happened if that extra character, the owl, did not deliver Harry Potter’s letter?), extra characters can add a sense of reality. They can be used to tip the reader off or lead them down the wrong path. Giving them a little life or attitude can add a chuckle in the midst of a tense moment, a divination of something bad to come, or bring home the reality of what the protagonist is experiencing. Don’t undervalue them, make your extras extra.

Extras. In film they are the nameless living bodies used to fill a scene. They mostly have no lines, no more than a few words, if any, may not be paid, and are more part of the set and scenery than the scene itself.

Like the scene setting, extras have a purpose of their own in establishing the mood and driving force of the chosen scenery. They also can have their own personality. Are they angry or calm? Studiously going about their business or laggardly slogging through the day? Mindless automatons moving with easy efficiency?

Giving those nameless and barely mentioned extras a life of their own, treating the group like a character unto itself, can lend a depth to the story and even allow a moment of foreshadowing.

Unless it’s a monolog or limited characters alone without any reference to other peoples’ existences, you likely aren’t going to have a longer story without extras, so you might as well use them.

“The Paperboy” or “Messenger” is a commonly used extra character. Sometimes quite literally, a paperboy standing on the street corner shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” while holding up a newspaper to show its prominent feature story headline screaming off the page to feed the reader or viewers an important piece of information. He might even call out that headline in a nudge to bring your attention to it.

Or their purpose may be for the protagonist, antagonist, or supporting character, to gain possession of that important news, informing them of something they didn’t know or giving proof to what they already suspected.

They aren’t necessarily an actual “paperboy”. It’s anything relaying that information. A newsflash on a television screen, phone call, letter, online search result, or a character sharing the information.

This character or object exists for one purpose only, and perhaps no more than a brief mention: to bridge the story into what is to come. To provide information to the characters, or just to the reader, that would otherwise not exist and cause a plot hole.

“The Mob” as I think of them, is any group of extras that exist just to set the mood. Barely more than background scene, they are a wall of screaming fans meeting a celebrity, jeering and catcalling at victims being dragged to the guillotine, armies waiting to clash on the battlefield, avid supporters, or an enraged mob.

“The Scenery” is a more docile version of the mob. Other people who just happen to be scattered in the coffee shop, other shoppers at the mall, beachgoers, bodies filling theatre seats. They exist because your characters’ world is not one without other humans.

But, what if you take one of those extra characters and make them just a little more?

Learn the secret behind the bodies. Take a step back in time to meet the boy who will create the killer.

In The McAllister Farm, William walks into a small town coffee shop to meet a man. Being a diligently cautious man, he automatically scans the patrons, noting who is there and anything out of place. A pair of men sitting at the counter who look exactly like so many others he’s seen in similar middle of nowhere coffee shops and restaurants. A nervous woman glancing out the window of a window booth. A teenaged boy sitting in a booth.

These extras are there because odds are against finding a completely empty venue and, in his case, anyone overhearing their conversation would be a potential threat to William McAllister and his family. Their existence adds that subtle layer of risk to the meeting.

It is the teenager who becomes just a little more than part of the backdrop. A boy like his own, a little older, sulking, letting his milkshake turn to watered milk. The kid’s mannerisms, bruising below his lip, and haunted eyes that won’t look at anyone. This tells William all he needs to know about the boy. More importantly, this moment within the scene gives the reader an insight into who the cold hard-handed William McAllister is. And in the end of the scene, as the man William met leaves minutes behind William, the scene shifts back to that boy in a reinforcement that William is not just correct in his observation of the boy, but also that William is more than the father the reader previously saw smack his own son. William’s moment of anger over the boy is justified and sense of morals affirmed.

Brief interactions with these extras can be a great source for imprinting on the reader anything from the mood of the scene to your character’s inner layers of personality, to dropping hints of foreshadowing, adding a moment of levity or strain, or reality to the scene. They’re useful in their own sentence or two to shine in the spotlight for informing the reader of something you don’t want the main characters to know. It can be used as a tool to give the scene itself its own sense of personality.

Now go out and write those compelling characters.

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