Shut up, you're an extra, nobody cares about your backstory

Shut up, you're an extra, nobody cares about your backstory

A Lesson by Mike Lamb

Don't flesh out every single loser on the page. Not everyone is worth paying attention to.


When it comes to character development, everyone will stress the importance of creating three-dimensional characters that are complex and profound. People with deep emotions and rich history. Okay, fine. But save that for the important people. Sometimes it's okay to make flat characters. Sometimes it's fine to use people as objects to decorate the landscape or perform certain functions to advance the story. Your audience, even if comprised entirely of new age hippies, will not and should not be intimately aquainted with every sentient being that wanders across the pages of your book. Now let's say you're doing first person narration. Think about who the protaganist is describing. Does he or she care that Lenny the janitor loves jelly donuts and writes bad poetry to his high school sweetheart even though she never returns his letters? Does it have anything to do with the plot? Is Lenny still going be hanging around the story in the next chapter? No? Well then maybe Lenny should write his own book and stay out of yours.


If you want to make a believable protaganist and/or narrator, you have to remember that apathy is a very human trait, and much more common than you might like to admit. So by trying to make everyone an in-depth case study of human emotion, you are denying the natural tendency towards apathy. There are always exceptions, of course. Maybe you actually ARE doing an in depth case study on human emotion. Maybe the protagonist is a psychologist or a voyeur or just plain nosey. In that case, giving every person an overkill of detail would be appropriate. But if it's something that you're doing simply because you saw it in a book, then stop.


Imagine yourself as a director, and the book is your film. Your budget is in words. Everytime you hire an extra, it costs words. If you want that extra to say a line, it costs more words. If you want to give that extra a flashback, that costs even more words. Pretty soon the producer will step in and say, "What did you waste all the budget on?" So let's stick with Lenny the Janitor. He can be funtionally boring, effectively amusing/striking/creepy/etc., or he can be needlessly detailed in a useless and boring way.


Since we've already established that Lenny is an extra with no real future in the story, it's up to the director to let him be just effective enough to justify paying, but not so much of a ham that he needs to be thrown off the set.


1. Functionally boring. "The short, stocky janitor walked past me pushing his grimy mop across the floor. He whistled a little tune as he worked." Nothing fancy, nothing special. Just another building block to set the scene. A few adjectectives, he's mopping, he's whistling, he's gone. He's just part of the wallpaper, animated enough to be noticed but not distracting.


2. Effectively interesting. "There's a little fat guy in a greasy janitor's uniform eating something that may or may not be a ham sandwich out of a trash can. He looks up as I walk by, offering me a dark brown yet surprisingly wormless apple core. He smiles. I give him a blank stare. He shrugs and returns to his meal as I walk away." There's a much higher word budget on this one, but the character becomes more memorable on the surface. Note how this works purely on a superficial descriptive level...we never ask Lenny what his name is or why he's eating out of the dumpster. We're not even sure if he's currently employed as a janitor. But we make our observations, give it closure, and get on with life.


3. Useless and boring. "Lenny wasn't always a janitor. He once had dreams of owning a ranch and breeding ponies. He had always liked ponies, even though his father mocked him for it. 'Ponies are for girls!' his father would say. His father was a cruel man. He would tease Lenny. Sometimes he would make Lenny wear a dress and makeup. He would get drunk and prance Lenny around the yard while screaming, 'Run, little pony!' And little Lenny would cry, streaking his chubby cheeks with runny mascara." STOP!!! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHY! Unless you really want to write this way, don't. If that's your style, great, but...damn. I can't even look at Lenny anymore.



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Posted 8 Years Ago

Actually, Lenny is a bit part character in Jack's Inferno. He dies. Sorry. But it's Hell, so he probably snaps out of it.

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Posted 8 Years Ago

you'll never believe I just gave this advice to a college age writer this week in a community workshop.... of course mine wasn't as vividly exampled as yours. Absolutely great advice.

On a side comment, you just "spoiled" my work in progress about my early career and the janitors I encountered. You must be psychic. lol.

I'm kinda liking Lenny, I think you just manifested him into a re-occurring entity in your story.... gotta be careful how ya conjure those characters, they get sticky and edgy and don't wanna go away.

Some day I'll tell you about "Tarzan" of hermosa beach and the shopping cart full of Oscar Meyer past their due date bologna packages.... I think he and Lenny are related.
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Added on September 18, 2010
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Mike Lamb
Mike Lamb

greenville, NC

Artist, writer, and a drunken lunatic prophet. I am the author of Jack's Inferno, a dark comedy bizarro/horror novel about Hell, previously published through Wordplague (now defunct). I am also a pro..