You have your main/leading characters and you have your supporting cast, and these obviously need authentic personalities and strong voices. But around these people swirls a universe of beings whose job it is to add realism to the backdrop of a story. They are people in the street, diners in a restaurant, classmates, neighbours, fellow passengers, shop assistants, colleagues and more – in fact anybody not central to the story.
Without a little colouring-in, these characters are simply shadows or matchstick men, and the credibility of the world the lead characters inhabit diminishes as a result.
My mentor pointed me to ‘Songdogs’ by Irish author Colum McCann as being an excellent point of reference for well-drawn background characters. It’s a beautifully written story, lyrical and authentic and I found many examples to learn from. The multitude of background characters within its pages are brought to life in just a line or two. These are thumbnail portraits highlighting a defining feature here, a tone of voice there, a smell, a style of dress, a colour, a habit, a posture, a possession. Together they enrich the reader’s vision of the world the protagonist wanders through.
So that’s another thing I’ve added to my near-infinite list of edits – colouring in the background characters.
Not long to go now, before I get stuck into those edits. I’m only 10,000 words or so away from The End of my first draft.