Filler Characters and How to Make Them Seem Less Filler-y
I’ve waxed poetic so much on character development in this column that there’s almost nothing left to say on the topic (HAH. Gotcha—there’s always more to say on character development.)
In those posts, though, I usually focus on the main characters. And that makes sense—who, after all, is the primary focus of your story? Your main characters! (You know…that’s why they’re “main”.)
Even secondary characters get a decent amount of attention and development, which is great. The more thoroughly developed the characters, the more compelling the story will be.
But what about filler characters? You know, the door man, the cab driver, the people in the restaurant, the guards and soldiers and other characters who are essentially just meat popsicles standing around, existing in your story because there have to be other people who exist in your story apart from the primary cast.
I mean, I don’t know about you guys, but when I go to the grocery store, it’s not just me, the one clerk I interact with, and an attractive guy who I bump into repeatedly who later becomes a primary feature in my life. It’s old ladies and moms with kids in carts and teenagers puttering around and business people grabbing frozen dinners and an assortment of people who work there, stacking boxes and restocking produce. It’s couples and singles and college kids and basically every kind of person, all bustling about, trying to get everything they need and get the heck out of there.
Naturally, your character isn’t going to interact with every single person they encounter. I certainly don’t—not because I’m mean, but it’s logistics. I simply can’t.
So your characters certainly don’t need to get to know every single character they interact with on a deep, profound, personal level.
But you should.
Generate a backstory for them. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but just make them something beyond the stereotypical, or the bland. You don’t want a bunch of cardboard cutouts standing around your novel—you want real people.
So that cab driver? Maybe he used to be a doctor, but lost his license in an unfair malpractice law suit. Maybe his wife left him, and now he’s a cab driver…and maybe he’s really happy! Maybe he never wanted to go into medicine because his father pushed him into it, and that marriage was unhappy, and he’s found a freedom he never knew before in what others would have called a catastrophic failure.
Your main characters don’t ever have to find all that out, but if you have that history in mind when you’re writing his scenes, then he’ll be a richer, fuller character.
And FYI, that little history I wrote up for the cab driver took me about eleven seconds to think up. This is not some kind of extensive character study, and it shouldn’t be a challenge; just think of interesting character traits.
If you aren’t confident in that, pick a real-life person you know or have encountered—a teacher, a friend’s parent, a quirky neighbour—and borrow a few of their traits. It’s a great way to create a real feel for a character without having to expend tremendous amounts of effort.
The thing with these side characters is we usually don’t plan them out; they just pop up as the story evolves. You don’t think, “And then they’ll walk past the doorman,” they just do it in the story and you have an opportunity to either leave it completely bland, or give a little spirit to the scene with a witty exchange, a funny anecdote, or an interesting but irrelevant factoid.
These additions are usually made in editing, after the second or third drafts have been completed. It’s in the “fleshing out” stage of the book that you actually have the time, energy, and understanding for what the story needs. So have fun with it. Let it be playful and exciting, rather than daunting. This is the dash of seasoning that adds flavour to your story, and used right, it can make a good novel great!
Who’s the coolest “filler” character you’ve ever encountered?