Write Tip: Building A Larger World Using Bit Characters

All too often in worldbuilding, it’s easy to believe that the bigger you get, the more realistic your world will be, but, at the same time, the bigger the world, the more complicated it becomes for the writer. So I am always looking for ways to simplify that process by making the most of elements I create for multi-purposes. And one of those involves utilizing bit characters to add depth to my world.

Think about your day-to-day life. You have family. You have a circle of friends. You have coworkers and associates. You have workers at places you regularly patronize like the grocery store. This is your world, in a sense, at least the immediate part of it with which you regularly interact. And it’s like that for pretty much everyone I’ve met all over the world from the U.S. to Africa, Brazil, Mexico and beyond. So when writing a book and creating a world, it’s helpful to consider the immediate, day-to-day world of your characters and to think about who inhabits it.

I have very few throwaway characters. There are always some, most unnamed or referred to simply by their occupation “guard,” “paperboy,” “knight,” etc. They are created for various reasons: to add atmosphere, for a brief scene where the protagonist or antagonists seeks something for their larger quest, or for other reasons. They appear, say a few lines, then disappear, forgotten. And sometimes, particularly in epic fantasies where the stories frequently involve travel and long distance journeys, it makes sense. But other times, when characters are moving around within a particular world again and again, these characters can be utilized to add greater depth and reality to your world by becoming part of the day-to-day circles of characters, to add a sense of community and realness.

If you look at any group, there are people who show up again and again in particular locations. Those are the people who can add texture and richness to your story if you use them well. Usually they refer to the protagonist and each other by nicknames or first names. They are close contacts, see. People who are used to each other and know each other well, even if they don’t get along. They interact so often that it’s just naturally developed and, as such, they tend to have a level of intimacy in how they refer to each other. These types of characters can add great meaning to your story and be created for that purpose, but you can also find them in characters you’ve written as throwaways.

For example, when I am looking for a character for a new situation, I always think through whom I have already created that can be pulled in. In The Worker Prince, I created a Major to take Davi Rhii on a tour of his first planetary military assignment. Later, I decided to utilize this character to work with Davi’s rival Bordox in tracking him down. By the end of the book, the character also led forces against the attacking army Davi led. Because this character inhabited the same circles as my protagonist (Davi) and antagonist (Bordox), having him recur added a sense of the circles they inhabit and how they interconnect, which just makes the world seem more real.

In writing the sequel, The Returning, I found myself in need of characters to accomplish various things. A throwaway member of the Borali Council, Lord Qai, then was given a major role. And Major Zylo wound up coming back as an interrogator and conspirator to great advantage for readers. One advantage of using such characters over and over is that you don’t have to build them from scratch in their history and their personality. That adds emotional depth to their interactions with your main characters because of things we’ve already read elsewhere in the stories, and, again, emphasizes the circles our leads inhabit in this world, making the world feel much more like the world we ourselves inhabit.

Screenwriters and movie directors have learned this trick. For many years, while I was in film school I’d count the cast list at the end of films and find that invariably, 33 characters was a common number. Looking at the number of one shot characters, it usually numbered 10 or less out of the 33. The rest tended to appear in multiple scenes, even if they only spoke a line or two each time. Why? because filmmakers know that people interact with a common circle every day and by including that circle, their story becomes more real and pops off the screen, even when viewers don’t notice all the details. Subconsciously, they grasp it and that behind-the-scenes experience, informs their opinions of the story and their involvement with it and ability to accept it as “realistic.”

So every time I create a character, I think about the characters I’ve already created who are still available to return. Can one of them be used instead of a new character? How can I add depth to that one-off character in both scenes by combining the two? Automatically, if the character occurs in different situations, it’s not only creating a sense of every day circle, as mentioned, but building a deeper character despite the small part they play, because you are showing another aspect of who they are in a way that makes them not just the flower shop girl, but also a neighbor, or a fellow parent, etc. There are all sorts of possibilities.

How much thought do you put into these types of characters? Do you just create them when you need them and forget about them? Or do you find ways to utilize them well and make a more memorable, powerful story? Remember the throwaway art gallery employee Serge in Beverly Hills Cop? Bronson Pinchot turned a bit part into a series regular, and the filmmakers found other scenes to utilize him in, not just at the gallery, but elsewhere. He was so popular that he returned in the film’s sequels. This is the same kind of thing that you can do in your novel and readers will enjoy it just as much. Especially if a character is well drawn and memorable. They may start as the stereotypical smart mouthed butcher and evolve into so much more.  If your protagonist walks past the same market again and again, why not have that passerby character be the storekeeper he interacted with before? It saves you the need to introduce and describe a new character and also accomplishes so much more.

Consider your current project. Are there characters you could utilize in this way to make the world bigger and the story more interesting and real? How do you handle these bit-part characters? How has it enriched your worldbuilding and storytelling? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in comments.

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011  Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

The Importance Of Reaching Beyond Female Stereotypes

My friend and fellow editor Kat Heckenbach asked an interesting question on Facebook today which really got me thinking about stereotypes: Are authors obligated to make characters fall into certain stereotypes because readers expect it? (For example, most people think of Goths as angry, snarly, dark, and Poe-obsessed. But when referring to a little kid, they can and do use the word cute–but if a Goth character in a book said that, would it just throw you right out?)

Stereotypes are common in literature, there’s no doubt, and in Science Fiction and Fantasy this can be particularly the case, especially with female characters. Damsels in distress are a mainstay of our genres, both inside the stories/books and on the covers. Most of us have seen Jim C. Hines’ posts about the silliness of the way women are posed versus men in such art. These images feed the stereotypes. Yes, they are an attempt by publishers to sell books using sex, which has worked forever as a means of moving product, not just books. But what message do they send culturally to women, young women and, almost more importantly, men, about the roles women have to play in our society? Are they just objects for lustful stares and wet dreams? Do these images leave open  the possibility for far more substance below the surface? How silly do male characters look when dressed and posed like female characters typically are? Take a look at this imagining or Avengers with such poses.

Think I’m kidding? Take a look at two cover examples below. One is an older example, the other more recent. Do artists and publishers actually think anyone could fight dressed this way or would? It kind of questions the character’s intelligence, doesn’t it? To make it worse, in the case of Ringo’s book, the publisher site describes the character as “soccer mom and demon fighter.” Wow. A soccer mom who walked around in that outfit would be accused of indecency, wouldn’t she? Not to mention being shunned by fellow soccer moms.

For me there’s no question that bucking stereotypes is far more interesting and adds nuances. If you start out with the typical housewife who raises kids while the hubby works but then turns out to be a zombie fighting badass, how much more interesting did she just get? I think, in particular, with women characters, fantasy struggles with this. The traditional epic fantasy has strong, sweaty fighting men protecting their helpless women, but is it really that interesting anymore? And can’t we change our views of women enough to include more possibilities? Even history would demonstrate that women have played far more diverse roles than the stereotypes a male-dominated society describes them with. There has been at least one female Pope, for example, whose gender was only discovered after she became pregnant. That was hundreds of years ago and she had to conceal her identity. But this is a different age. Why should women have to hide their true selves? I’d like to think we’re more enlightened than that, but I know not all of us are.

I grew up with strong women around me. From my Mom, who was the stay at home housewife, a woman who retired from nursing to raise her three kids, to my twin sister, cousins, aunts, and grandmothers, the women I grew up with were not stereotypical. They had common traits we might associate with women, of course. They were often more emotional than men and could talk about it more freely. Most of them were better at cooking and laundry, etc. than we men. But this was not because we were incapable of it, rather it was because that was the role they were expected to take on. They took it on gladly, too, but my Mom sat me down at fourteen with a stern warning. “You’re going to learn to cook, clean, do laundry, basic sewing, and anything else I think you need so your wife can’t send you back some day and tell me you’re not finished.” And so I did learn, and those skills have been invaluable to me. In fact, when I got married, my wife didn’t know how to sew, so I was the one who fixed buttons, dog toys, etc. in our house. I also helped with cleaning. In fact, there were some tasks I really don’t enjoy which are typically associated with menlawn work, for examplewhich my wife enjoyed and did while I helped with so-called “women’s work.”

There’s a ridiculous term if I’ve ever heard one: “women’s work.” The work typically grouped under that heading is the work necessary to daily living. If you’re a bachelor, unless you’re rich, you’re going to have to do laundry, find a way to cook and eat, etc. It doesn’t make you suddenly sprout breasts and start generating estrogen. “Women’s work” is an insulting term because its origins come from a sense of superiority by men that the “important work” is not for women. Because, of course, raising good, responsible citizens while the men are at the office working sixty hour weeks is unimportant. Keeping a nice home so the man can come home and actually relax during down time is menial. We’d all survive without those things, right? Yep, without “women’s work” we’d still be the greatest country on Earth.

Hardly. Some of the most meaningful character-building times in my life were working with my mother and grandmothers on the very tasks typically called “women’s work”learning to cook, fold clothes, sew, etc. I’m a creative after all, and cooking and sewing, in particular, very much stimulate my creative impulses. Add to that the fact that walking around naked outside of performance art has tended to be frowned upon, especially if your ribs are showing like a starving African kid, and, well, they really did me a service teaching me to care for clothes and feed myself. I’m just saying…

And look at this cover for Raven 3: The Frozen God. Seriously. A woman dressed like that fighting monsters on an ice field? Oh yeah, that’s realistic. Yeah, this warrior woman is so badass, she doesn’t even freeze. Yep. The only time women in my life ever dressed this way was to go swimming, at Halloween of costume parties, or in changing rooms at the store. In fact, other than my wife, none of the women mentioned from my life in this post ever dressed this skimpily. It’s not even appropriate for the task. Unless, as my editor suggested, the only way to kill this monster is to get it aroused. Doubtful.

You just can’t stereotype women any more than you can men these days. The fact is that we are all individuals and just when you meet a women whom you think embodies all the “typical female traits,” five minutes later she’ll surprise you with aspects you never would have imagined. It used to be “men’s work” to get an education and write, for example, and where would our genres be without Ursula LeGuin, Connie Willis, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, A.C. Crispin, Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and numerous others? How much would be have missed out on if the Cat Valentes, Kij Johnsons, Nnedi Okorafors, and N.K. Jemisons had never put pen to paper? Seriously. What about Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, Beth Meacham and Liz Gorinsky, Anne Vandermeer and Sheila Williams? They buy stories from men as well as women and all are amongst the top editors in this business.

I get the whole male instinct to want to protect their women. But it’s not like those instincts don’t also exist in women. Think I’m wrong? Go to a playground and act weird around some woman’s kid. Be sure and take a picture of that black eye and get a copy of the mug shot, too, okay?

I think it’s incumbent upon all writers, male and female, to carefully consider the roles they give to characters. Yes, with minor roles, sometimes stereotypes can be expedient. And sometimes they get the job done, but push yourself to make sure that for every stereotype you employ ten characters who buck such narrow definitions. Not only will your plots and themes and work expand in scope and meaning as a necessary result, but it will resonate more profoundly with modern readers and even help erase stereotypes as functions of our culture. I can think of no greater goal and contribution Science Fiction and Fantasy writers could make, can you?

The world needs more ninjas posing as suburban housewives who save the world. It needs more mothers who don’t wait for their husbands to save the day but draw their sword or blaster and take on the kidnappers themselves, kicking ass to free their kids. Our modern world has plenty of room for men in the kitchen and sewing, too. After all, think of Top Chef and other cooking shows: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Curtis Stone,  Gordon Ramsey, Calvin Klein, Bob Mackie, and Guccio Guccishould these men be considered abnormal for the excellence they’ve worked hard to create? Hardly.

As much as I applaud them for having this panel, it’s 2012. Should we really still desperately need panels like this:

(PR) Kicking ass in high heels: These days women can kick ass, save the world, and still have time to fall in love.
But why are they still doing it in hot pants and high heels? Can heroines be a size 18 and still be beautiful?

Unfortunately, we do need them, and it’s because of the perpetuation of stereotypes. Think of the other issues we could be putting our time into if we just put aside these silly limitations and moved on?

One of the worst insults I got in a review was a review which said I had “shockingly outdated female roles.” This was for a story where I have female political leaders, female starfighter pilots, female warriors, female military leaders, and so on. I thought I was trying hard to break the molds, and yet here comes a reviewer to tell me I hadn’t done enough. I still think they’re wrong, but, at the same time, it pushes me to strive harder, to ask more questions, and to do everything I can to prove them wrong so I never hear such a disappointing criticism again. After all,  my Mom reads my books. I don’t want her thinking I didn’t learn a thing from all her efforts. But more than that, I don’t want my daughters and other girls who read my books to ever think I’m telling them they can’t be anything they want to be.

The world may set limits, but in the worlds of your fiction, possibilities are limitless. Don’t let yourself write within the familiar box of the world in which you live. Instead, tear down the walls and shoot for something no one’s seen but should be seeing. Push the boundaries and see where it takes you, your characters and your story. Let no one accuse us of writing the same old fantasy or space opera. Instead, let us together launch a new age and work to redefine what “same old” is. To my mind, we owe it to our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters to open the world’s doors. After all, making the world a better place is a responsibility for all of us, not just a “chosen male few.” We live in an age when the distinction between what women can do for careers and what men can do is fading to almost nothing. How can our fiction represent our times and a bright future if it doesn’t reflect that?

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.