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Who Are The People in Your Neighborhood

May 17, 2011

My kids have been ill with strep throat and subsequently have had to remain home from school. That means I’ve been forced to watch a vast array of children’s programing. Most of it becomes background noise as I try to tune it out. Except for Sesame Street. I stop and watch that with them. Like a great many children of my generation, I grew up with that show. One particular segment gave me my inspiration for this month’s article. Hands up if you remember the song Who Are The People in Your Neighborhood. After all the toe tapping and singing along I started thinking about all the people you meet in a day who are quickly forgotten. I’ve had conversations on the train or airplanes with folks who I wouldn’t recognise again if I ran into them in a coffee shop twenty minutes later. They are incidental characters in my life. They are bit players who populate my world and add a bit of flavor. And that, for the most part, is how they fit into my stories too.

A bit player is someone who pops into your story, does or says something, then pops out again. Bit players revolve around your main characters and often your supporting characters too. Their basic role is to populate the world you are building. They are the pinch of salt that brings out the flavor, the right people in the right place at the right time to help push your plots along and help define your main characters.

Their importance not withstanding, they can be a challenge to write. There are a few things to consider when it comes to writing bit players. The biggest rule is don’t populate your story with dozens of characters insignificant to the story as a whole. Just as a pinch of salt can enhance the flavor of a dish, too much can ruin it. Having too many small characters running hither and yon across your pages will confuse your readers. That’s simply something you want to avoid at all cost. Plus too many small characters will eat up a lot of space. As a flash fiction and short story writer I know how valuable each word can be.

You want to your bit players to get in and out but that’s not to say you don’t want them to be memorable. The best way to I’ve found to introduce a bit player is to to let their role or profession dictate how they are described. Be careful though, not all shop keepers think the customer is always right and not all funeral directors are creepy. Do your best to avoid stereotypical descriptions. That being said the whole reason for using their profession as a tool for defining a bit player is because of those same stereotypes. It’s a fine line. Set your bit player in their comfort zone. In other words, place the funeral director in a funeral home and the shop keeper in the shop. Their dialogue and actions should reveal something about them. Remember your goal is to get them in, advance your plot or bring out something defining in your main characters, and get them out again quick.

Since bit players may pop in and out of the story it’s important that they make a lasting impression. You won’t have time, nor would you want, to reintroduce them each time they enter the story. You want your reader to instantly remember what they know of them. Robin Hobb in her book Assassin’s Quest, illustrates this nicely as she introduces us to Nik, the smuggler.

It seemed a very long time before the door opened. A tall man, brown-haired and blue-eyed, came out. He was dressed like the girl in leathers. A very long knife hung at his belt. The girl came on his heels, looking petulant. He had rebuked her, then. He scowled at us and demanded, “What is this about?”

In one tight paragraph we know this is not a man to be trifled with. Possibly someone who is quick to anger and seems to take his wrath out on the poor girl. He wears a long knife and is dressed in leather. Sounds like a man ready to fight. Tension is built quickly as we are left to wonder how the protagonist will handle the situation. Every time Nik pops back into the story I instantly get an image of a scowling man dressed in leather who is quick to anger. He’s a loose cannon and anything can happen when he’s around.

So that’s my two cents on bit players. (I was going to say two bits, but thought better of it). Remember, bit players are the people who make your world real. To quote the very famous Sesame Street song: Their the people that you meet when your walking down the street.

How do you handle bit players? Are they essential to the type of stories you write or do you find their inclusion tends to muddle you stories?

One Comment
  1. May 17, 2011 9:56 am

    I think most writers are not conscious of their ‘bit players’. I’m not entirely sure that the topic deserves a conversation really. I would be interested to see a themed work that adds more depth and flesh to bit players, maybe something of a floating consciousness point of view. Where the 3rd Limited follows around someone, until they make significant contact with another person, and continues in this fashion for each chapter.

    It would be interesting, and a good way to show the depth of an event. Say, how a natural disaster effects everyone’s life in a community, etc.

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