Monday, September 20, 2021

Populating Your Story with Background Characters

 

We all enjoy the secondary characters in stories, right?

The heroine’s best friend, the hero’s fun younger brother, the sidekick, the pal, the mentor.

These characters are necessary to your story. They provide someone for your characters to confide in and someone to push your hero or heroine to make the move toward romance or toward the next plot point in your story.

But what about the background characters?

First, let’s define what a background character is.


 
These are characters who populate the third circle of your cast. They are more than a part of the community, but they don’t have as much of a relationship with your hero/heroine as your secondary characters.

But what purpose do they serve?

Unlike the secondary characters, background characters aren’t there to influence the story or your main characters. They provide a balance, a mood, or sometimes a way to ease or increase the tension of a scene.

They can also be a vehicle to give your story a reason to progress through the next scene, like an older couple in my Christmas novella, “An Amish Christmas Recipe Box.”

Let’s look at a couple background characters from fiction as examples.

First, there’s Rosie Cotton from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you’ve read the books or seen the movies, you know Rosie. Sam is in love with her – we know that from the beginning – but he doesn’t feel that he can “speak” for her quite yet. Her character is part of the community, and yet a little bit more. She doesn’t influence the story like a secondary character would, but she influences Sam. In a very subtle way, we know that she is his unstated and secret motivation to come home from the quest, and his hope for the future.


 
Another one is Mrs. McGregor from Peter Rabbit. She doesn’t play an active role in the story, but she is there. She is pictured in the third illustration in the book, along with Mrs. Rabbit’s ominous warning to Peter: “Your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” That seemingly innocent act of fixing dinner for her family immediately cast Mrs. McGregor as the accomplice to murder! From that point on she isn’t mentioned again, but she is there, symbolizing the fate of careless rabbits who wander into the wrong garden.



Background characters are important to your story, and they should be crafted with care. You don’t need to develop them with the same depth as your main and secondary characters, but they should have their own lives and personalities.

I’d like to introduce you to a background character in my Work-in-Progress, the second installment in my Sweetbrier Inn Mysteries. Her purpose in the story is simple – I have two artists who are at odds with one another as secondary characters, and neither one is very likeable. This character, Debbie, is also an artist, but I made her the kind of person you could sit down and enjoy a cup of tea with. She’s the counterbalance to the other two characters.

Here’s her introduction in the book:

“Good afternoon,” I said to the older couple. “You must be Rick and Debbie Harris.”

“That’s right.” Rick smiled at me, his graying beard unable to hide the friendly gesture. “We’re sorry we’re late, but we hadn’t expected the Dignity statue in Chamberlain to be so captivating.”

“Have you seen it?” Debbie asked. When I shook my head, she went on. “You have to. It is so beautiful and conveys the dignity of the Native Americans perfectly in the graceful lines of the woman. Like a dancer captured in motion.”

Her hands fluttered in the air as she spoke as if she was trying to express the movement that the statue could only represent. Her gently curled silver hair with strands of gold lowlights added to the ethereal quality of her description.

“I’m sorry.” She laughed as her hands dropped to her side like birds coming to roost on a branch. “I get carried away sometimes.” She shook her head as she laughed again.

We will see Debbie often as the story progresses since she and her husband are guests at the bed and breakfast where the book is set. She is part of the background and provides texture to the cast of characters. She might even provide some insight into the motive for the murder.

The inspiration for my fictional Sweetbrier Inn

 
Have you given a thought to the background characters in your story?

Tell us about your favorite background character, either in your own work or in a favorite book or movie in the comments.

One commenter will win a copy of “An Amish Christmas Kitchen,” the collection of novellas that includes “An Amish Christmas Recipe Box.” That’s the story I mentioned earlier where I use background characters to move the story along. You’ll have to see if you can spot them as you read the story!


As the weather grows cold and the nights grow long, the cheer and warmth of the Christmas season is one thing all readers can find comfort in. This collection from bestselling Amish fiction novelists Leslie Gould, Jan Drexler, and Kate Lloyd finds the beating heart at the center of the holiday and offers three novellas that celebrate family, faith, and especially the sights and smells of a bustling holiday kitchen.


Leslie Gould tells the story of how, in the wake of a heartbreaking loss, a young Amish woman finds unexpected comfort and hope in a yearly baking tradition surrounding the local Lancaster Christmas market. Jan Drexler offers a sweet tale of a shy Amish woman who decides to use her gift for sweets to woo a local Amish boy with her beloved Christmas cookies. And Kate Lloyd offers a heartwarming tale of a woman's unexpected discovery about the truth of her past, and the warm and welcoming Amish family table she finds herself invited to on Christmas.

The giveaway is for a physical copy of the collection (US addresses only) or an e-copy of either the collection, or Jan's story alone (wherever Amazon will send the e-book.)

27 comments:

  1. I love those background characters. They flavor the town, they influence the story and often the primary characters by offering an insight that comes from an unexpected space... and in a mystery can often be either a hint/clue or a red herring... and some of them are so delightfully funny that they make us smile by just being them.
    Great insight, Jan.

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    1. Thanks, Ruthy!

      Those background characters are everywhere in real life, aren't they? The woman behind you in line at the grocery store that strikes up a conversation is a good example - you may never see her again, but your lives intersected for a brief, friendly few minutes that influenced your day.

      The more I've thought about these characters in my stories, the more I like them.

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  2. Good morning, Seekerville!

    The tea is brewing, the coffee is hot, and we've got baked omelets on the buffet. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Good morning, Jan. Great post, which gives me something to think about in my writing. I already have the book and look forward to reading it soon as I am about to start reading Christmas books. I look forward to reading that story.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it, Sandy! An Amish Christmas Recipe Box was my first novella and my first contemporary story. I enjoyed writing it more than I thought I would.

      It's always good to try something new. :-)

      You'll have to see if you can spy the background characters!

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  4. My background characters sometimes reveal important clues! Thanks for addressing their importance in your blog, Jan! Great job!

    Your Debbie sounds like a delightful guest at the B&B!

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    1. They can be useful, can't they?

      And I'm enjoying Debbie, too. :-)

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  5. Thank You Jan for this wonderful post! Love the cover of your book and I Love to read this sounds like such a great book Please enter me in your amazing book giveaway Have a Blessed day!

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  6. I really enjoyed this! It's easy to overlook those background characters, and yet they are so useful! I must be more intentional about my background characters!

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    1. I've learned to love these "ships passing in the night" characters. They can be a lot of fun to write.

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  7. I always checked background characters every time buying books. it helps me to chose the right one :) Referred to Things to do in Hawaii

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  8. I love well-done background characters. The depth they bring to a story, especially when the setting itself is a character, like a small town, because those characters ARE the small town.

    And I just drove by Dignity yesterday on my way home from Sioux Falls. I am moved by how beautiful she is every time I see her! I love little things like in local stories and I can't wait to read these mysteries of yours, Jan!

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    1. The dignity statue is breathtaking - and different every time we go by, depending on how the sun shines through the quilt.

      And for those who don't know what we're talking about, head over to this website to see a picture: https://www.travelsouthdakota.com/trip-ideas/story/dignity-earth-sky

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    2. Another piece of local flavor I put in the first mystery in the series is that I have two of the characters stop for lunch at Armadillos. :-)

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    3. LOL I wonder why Armadillos? :) Yum!

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  9. Thank you for your post and the chance to win a print copy of this book. I really enjoy all three of these authors so I'm looking forward to reading this.

    wfnren at aol dot com

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  10. What first came to mind is Prissy in “Gone with the Wind” and the iconic….”I don’t know nothing about birthin’ babies.”

    Thank you for the insight for background characters, and the opportunity to win the book. Love Amish fiction!

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    1. Prissy is a wonderful background character! I loved her, even though she was no help at all when Melanie needed her!

      And you're in the drawing. :-)

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  11. such an interesting post, Jan. When you said Background characters my mind went to secondary characters. I really enjoyed reading about the difference.
    Ummmm So many of my stories are low population books. I've got a couple of ranch foreman I like as background characters.
    Lawmen often stand as background characters.
    I like naming Diners odd, sometimes gross things. The current book has a diner called Hogbacks. And the owner is called Hogback. That's it. He's not a very good cook and he's lazy. That's about all we know about him.
    The parson and his wife. Kindly people who have an extra room and always make it available to the local school marm.

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    1. You have some background characters! You're right about them being mostly names filling roles - townspeople, neighboring ranchers, drifters, ranch hands.

      I love the name of your diner! In my current WIP I have a biker bar named "Hogs 'n' Suds." My husband thought it was a laundromat when I ran the idea past him, so that has become a running joke through the book. Every time someone questions the name of the bar, Billy and Marge (the owners) have to patiently explain:

      “Hogs and Suds. Get it?” My face must have shown my confusion. “Hogs, as in bikes.” That didn’t clear up anything. “Harleys. Bikers like to call them hogs.”

      “Okay. But what about the suds? Is this a laundromat?”

      He laughed. “I get that question all the time. Suds as in the head of foam on a glass of beer.”

      A woman dressed in jeans and a black leather vest came out of the building and joined him. “It’s a play on the old drive in, Dog and Suds. Get it?”


      Now I'm ready to head to Hogbacks for some chicken fried steak covered in gravy, or to Hogs 'n' Suds for a basket of onion rings!

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  12. Thank you for sharing nice blog.
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  13. Love this, Jan! Those background characters help bring our stories and settings to life. They add depth to a story. I mean, just think of how many background characters play a role in our own lives. Great post, Jan.

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  14. This was an interesting post, I had never thought of background characters in that way before. Thank you for the giveaway

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