Your story is a finite thing. At some point, one assumes, you will reach an ending. The time before that is spent in character study, plot development, and language manipulation. Along the way, you’ll let your readers in on many characters’ secrets. Those characters will most likely be the main ones you’re focusing on, but those aren’t the only characters that populate your story. There are probably background characters moving about behind the scenes, somewhere between the star of the show and the extras in a movie. They may be as close as the best friend of your main character or as far away as the man she runs into on the street one morning. There isn’t time to explore all of these characters to their deepest depths. But your goal should be to write them as if you could.
In a recent post on his Terrible Minds blog, the inimitable Chuck Wendig imparted 100 Random Storytelling Thoughts and Tips. One of those tips just happened to catch my eye. For number 21 on his list, Chuck writes, “Every character is a rabbit hole. Every character goes all the way down if you let them. Not every character demands falling down that hole — but every character should feel like it’s possible. Every character should feel like they possess hidden depths and secret motivations and a great big history all their own.”
It would be so easy to fall down all those rabbit holes, wouldn’t it? But, as I stated several sentences ago, your story is a finite thing. If you want to keep the plot within reasonable limits, you have to curtail the rabbit holes. And yet, you must make it clear that there is a rabbit hole for everyone who populates your story. This is a fine line to walk, but it’s important for the realness of your characters and the perceived vastness of your story’s universe. If you want the world and the story to seem like they contain real people, you have to imply that everyone has a storied past and everyone has unexplored depths just waiting to be explored.
This is the type of thing that allows readers to go hog wild with fanfiction. For example, J.K. Rowling may not say as much as she possibly could about the character known as Hannh Abbott, but I guarantee you that several fanfiction websites feature a tag for Hannah Abbott. With a few well-placed details, Rowling gave readers just enough info on Ms. Abbott to allow them to imagine her on their own. Rowling hinted at Hannah’s depths — and the depths of many other background characters — thus adding depth to her overall story.
The best way to do this? Write up character sheets. No one has to see those, but if you know what your character’s backgrounds and pasts contain, then you can imbue that into your writing of them. Happy writing!
— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan