Some of you will know immediately what I mean when I say that. Others may bristle. But have the advantage of having traveled the world quite a bit and I’ve seen the truth of it everywhere I go and everywhere I have lived.
The world is a complex place. Filled with uncertainties and variations and surprises that can twist things unexpectedly. So depending upon the breadth of experience one has in living in various locations, cultures, subcultures, etc., one tends to come to see the world through a particular lens. The boundaries of this lens are a sort of box. Anything that falls within our box is what we tend to expect and understand as normal. Anything outside of it is an aberration.
Yes, I’m oversimplifying a bit. But I hope you all understand the concept now.
In the internet age, coming into contact with people whose box conflicts with or at least seems to hardly overlap one’s own is becoming common and more and more leads to conflict. So when writing characters, I think writers need to consider this aspect of human world views to write more realistic characters and conflicts. In truth, most writers have been doing this all along, because the conflicts between characters always arise out of their different Points of View—needs, wants, desires, goals, and so on. But nuance and depth can come from deeper understanding of how the basis of these conflicts arises out of ways of seeing the world through different lenses.
For example, in Ghana, West Africa, it is considered rude for servants—even those temporarily assuming such duties like tour guides, drivers, or assistants to visiting dignitaries—to eat meals in public alongside their betters. When we ate out in Ghana, our young aide refused to eat with my team and one time some team members got very irritated with me for not inviting him. I told them I had been there before and that even if I asked, he would refuse, but they insisted, so I walked outside and asked him. I should have had one of them do it. But when I came back, as expected, with his declination, they were convinced I was some kind of bigot. I later explained this to the young aide, who is a good friend even today, and he tried to set them straight but it did no good. So stuck were they in their concept of what the world should look like that they couldn’t even consider, let alone respecting, his point of view or my regard for it.
This is just one example of many such I could give but things like this happen every day. Another time, I was surprised to hear the Ghanaians once express resentment toward the African American “homelanders”— who came back and acted like they had returned to their home when they knew nothing about it, had no concept of its culture, beliefs, or customs. They said that was arrogant and disrespectful. Those people were no Africans. This is the culture clash of different boxes. Do all Ghanaians feel this way? No, but even within Ghana with all the tribes and subcultures there are different boxes just as there are in the U.S. with all our cultures, subcultures, etc. This is not exclusive to international culture clashes. It is local, too.
Your characters will have boxes and the worlds they inhabit, to be realistic, will have cultures, subcultures, and divisions wherein people have different views of the world that come into conflict with each other, so it would behoove you to write and carefully consider how these cultural differences create conflict and nuance in your worldbuilding and story. Your stories will be richer and more realistic for the effort. And you will in turn gain valuable perspective to perhaps look at those around you with new eyes. Things that maybe once bugged you might be worth a second look or a few sensitively phrased questions to determine their cause. Perhaps you will be able to reach new understandings with others that enrich your own life in the process.
Our boxes only define us if we allow them too. It is possible—I have done it and it was hard work—to inhabit the world with respect for others and sensitivity to control emotional or knee jerk reactions in these kinds of moments so that you can not only better see and respond to the conflicts arising from the different boxes of those around you but widen your own box in the process. Your world, life, and writing will be much richer for it, and you will gain deeper respect and friendships as well.
Just a few simple thoughts on a very complex problem. For what it’s worth…
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 Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping 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.
Recently I’ve been copyediting The Very Best Book Of Baby Names by Barbara Kay Turner, and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about naming characters. Character naming is an important consideration for many reasons. One, you want memorable names which stick with readers for a long time. Two, you want names that are decipherable by readers’ minds i.e. names they can sound out mentally somehow. Three, you want names that make sense in the culture and world and follow some sort of decipherable pattern or at least seem to fit together as classes based on people groups, etc. Four, names can have symbolic meanings which play a role in defining characters. Sometimes the formality or informality of it is important. A character who calls another by a nickname is assume to have a closer relationship with that character than another person who uses the formal name. I’m sure I could list other considerations.
I’ve posted on naming considerations before in Write Tips here, but what a great resources this naming book has turned out to be. I highly recommend the purchase of it or one like it by all authors. Delabarre Publishing is coming out with an ebook version of Turner’s book very soon, for example.
The beauty of books like this is that they examine names based on a number of helpful factors: genetic appropriateness, tradition, popularity, cultural origins, spellings, usages, etc. They dig into how names are created and used and all sorts of considerations which many authors might not even consider in choosing names. Names can be a way to say a whole lot with very few letters: about your character, your world, etc. There’s so much to think about when writing a book. Some authors spend years considering every little detail, others make decisions quickly and move on to the work of prose. There’s no wrong or right if it works in the end, but internalizing some of this information can add depth to your choices and weapons to your arsenal which will improve your writing and the reading experience for readers of your work.
Here are some examples of charts which could be useful from Turner’s book:
Traditional Boys’ Names (Western world)
Alan, Allen, Albert
Brian, Bryan <—- For some reason, I’m really attached to this one
Craig, Greg, Gregory
Edgar, Edward, Edwin
Traditional Girls’ Names (Western world)
Alice, Alison, Allison
Andrea, Ann, Anna, Anne
Lara, Lora, Laura, Lauren
Marie, Maria, Mary
Teresa, Therese, Theresa
Okay, those are pretty standard for those of us in the Western World, but they are recognizable and probably frequently jump to mind. What if you want something more exotic or a better mix? How about international names with variant spellings? Some were included on the above list and some were not:
I hope this is helpful. Love to hear suggestions in the comments below. 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, and The 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 a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping 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.