Creating Character ‘Extras’ to Enhance Your Story

Vision 2

Creating Character ‘Extras’ to Enhance Your Story

By Shane P. Carr

©2001, Shane P. Carr


Many times when you're writing a story, you’ll realize that you need to add some characters to enhance your story’s environment. These characters will generally be ‘extras’. Much like many Hollywood productions these ‘extras’ will merely add flavor and atmosphere to your story’s environment. The ‘extras’  can be anybody in your story. Let’s say, for instance, that your two lead characters are sitting in a local diner having lunch. Since they are in a diner, chances are there is someone serving them. This person, waitress/waiter, is a story ‘extra’. The character doesn't have the role of progressing the plot of the story, he or she is merely there to enhance the environment and bring it to life. Since your characters are in a diner, as long as it’s a good one, there should also be other patrons. These patrons are ‘extras’ as well. If you portray them correctly, they will add a very realistic atmosphere to the scene.

Now as a writer, you're thinking that you already have a large enough cast for the story. You have created in-depth backgrounds on each. You’ve taken the time to get inside their heads and see how each one thinks. Now you're asking if you have to do all this for these extra characters as well. The answer, for the sake of every writer’s sanity, is ‘No’.

Chances are, these characters will not have much more than a physical description and perhaps a short piece of dialogue. Remember, we don’t need to know the background of these characters.

You might wonder how you will come up with this cast of extras. You are probably even grunting over the extra work this is going to cause when you could be developing your plot. Don’t worry. Creating an extra is extremely easy to do, and doesn’t require much thought.

Unless you’re a hermit, you encounter these ‘extras’ everyday. Think about the scene above in the diner; now think about your last real-life trip to a diner. Consider the waitress who served you, and the other customers who were seated nearby. See if you can describe some minor details of each. Perhaps you overheard a mother, seated at the table across from you, scolding her hyperactive child. Maybe at the table behind you, you overheard a couple arguing.  What did these people look like? What was your perception of each person? What did you learn or observe about each one?  How about the waitress? Did she appear to be overworked? Tired? Did she initiate some brief conversation with you, or just take your order?

Do you see how the experience you had at the diner gives you all the ‘extras’ you’ll need for the scene? The only details you need are the ones you perceived in your actual experience and you’ll have your cast of extras.

Now, depending upon the type of story your writing, you may want to use your creative license as a writer to embellish upon the description of your ‘extras’. You may want to add stereotypes, profound traits, or enhanced personalities to your ‘extras’.  Perhaps your waitress is a blonde woman with a nice figure. If you decide you want to use the stereotype of the blonde as an airhead to add a comical element, by all means do so. This is part of your creative license. Just keep in mind that you only want to enhance the environment of your story.   You don’t want to distract your reader from the main characters. You may even find that you can enhance your main characters by having them play off an extra. Something about your main character’s personality can be revealed through a small piece of dialogue. It may only be a preference for black coffee, but it will still help develop an image of your main character.

So the next time you go out someplace, try this exercise. It has worked well for me on numerous occasions, and I now do it as habit. Wherever you go bring a notepad. It doesn't’ t have to be anything big, just something to write down brief thoughts and descriptions. Pay attention to the people you see or interact with. Examine the people around you. In your notes, briefly describe them. Pay attention to the varied mannerisms  of people. Heck, I even give you permission to eavesdrop on a few conversations. Pay special attention to the reasons you think some of these people would make good extras.  When you get home and examine your notes, I think you will find that you have quite a colorful and realistic cast of ‘extras’ for your story.

Also keep in mind that, although this exercise works easiest for stories that take place in the real world, you can easily tailor your extras for any world or any genre.

Just pay attention to the world around you and you will soon see that you have a pre-made cast of thousands.