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Monday, November 8, 2021

Making Characters Stuck in the Background Pop Out

Maybe you have had some of the experiences I've had when working on a project, 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 weaknesses that affect the story, instead of just flaws that are endearing side notes. A quick way to make a character feel rounder, is to make them embody a seeming contradiction--that will definitely help a character stand out. For other approaches on rounding out a character, see my article "Flat Characters vs. Round Characters," and find the subtitle "How to Make a Character Round."

Put Your Character in Situations that Show off His Traits and Abilities

There may be a good chance that the setups and situations you are putting your character in don't show off the defining traits you've given her. 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 Her from "Loud" Characters

Some of your other characters may not necessarily be loud mouths (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. 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. 

If none of these methods seem to work or relate to your story, you may want to consider revamping your character so that she is more relevant, or, if you need to, cut him altogether.


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