Maybe you have had some of the experiences I’ve had when writing a manuscript, one of which is finding yourself with a character–could be a side character, a secondary character, or even a viewpoint character–who seems to be sort of stuck in the background of the story when he’s not really supposed to be. In your head, he’s a great character, and maybe you even want to showcase him, but for some reason, on the page, he just doesn’t shine. Sometimes this sort of thing even happens with the protagonist. Here are four tips to help make characters stuck in the background pop out.
Give Your Character Defined Attributes
You may be familiar with the idea of “tagging” your character–giving your character attributes or key words that are regularly referenced. For example, Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is regularly described with the color pink, wearing a bow, “like a toad,” and very short and stumpy. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, always has a bowler hat, and he usually takes it off and runs the brim of it through his hands.
If your character is stuck in the background, she may need some tags to help her pop out. Make sure you don’t pick tags or details that are so generic, they are forgettable. Instead, be specific and telling.
Round out Your Character
Some characters get stuck in the background because they aren’t rounded out as real individuals. I’ve seen this happen when editing manuscripts that have a heroine who is a borderline Mary Sue. Because she isn’t rounded out as a real person, she sort of blends into the background. If this is the case, you’ll need to flesh her out and give her some legitimate flaws that pertain to the story, instead of just flaws that are endearing side notes. Remember that point: give you character strengths and weaknesses that relate to the story. You can find plenty more tips online about rounding out your character.
Put Your Character in Situations that Showcase Their Traits and Abilities
There may be a good chance that the set-ups and situations you are putting your character in don’t show off the defining traits you’ve given her. This can relate back to my last post here in Writers Helping Writers, about giving your character some kind of contradiction. In the television show Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes is a self-proclaimed high-functioning sociopath, which means he doesn’t relate well to people. That’s a character trait that makes him interesting. But if we never put him in significant social situations and only put him in scenes where he solves cases, we never get to the depth or complexity of that character trait. It’s never illustrated in a way that fully realizes it.
Other times, it’s not so much a trait that isn’t illustrated as it is a talent or ability. In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, one of the main characters, Violet, is an inventor. But if the plot never needed an invention to solve a problem, we’d never see how good Violet is at inventing something.
If you don’t put your character in situations that showcase her defining traits or talents and abilities, she can fade into the background.
Separate Them from “Loud” Characters
Some of your other characters may not necessarily be loudmouths (though they can be), but they are “loud” in that they beg for attention. Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean is a good example of this. He’s perhaps the most entertaining and likeable character in the franchise, and when he’s on the screen, people watch him. It’s like you can’t look away. You have to see what he will do or say or even what his mannerisms are. Sometimes we cannot fully appreciate Will or Elizabeth or Barbossa because we are so focused on Jack. If Jack were in every scene, we may not appreciate many of the other characters at all.
Luckily, the writers made sure to separate Jack regularly from many of the others. If you watch the franchise, you’ll see that it’s true. To make your background character pop out, you may need to do the same thing. And it doesn’t need to be elaborate. Separate your “quieter” character from the “loud” ones, so that they can get some of the spotlight, even if it’s just temporary. (This is also one of the reasons the “mentor” character often dies–so that the protagonist can step up and shine.)
If none of these methods seem to work or relate to your story, you may want to consider revamping your character to make them more relevant, or, if you need to, cut them altogether.
A note from Angela…
If you need help with secondary characters, and developing them so they play off your other characters including the protagonist, try the Character Builder.
This tool contains all the character-specific databases Becca and I have created, making it easy to brainstorm important personal details about your character that will make then well-rounded, human, and unique. It also contains a Role Guide that supplies direction on WHAT areas to you need to brainstorm based on that character’s role. This is a great way to make sure they have purpose without taking your story over.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.