There are three types of characters in a story. There are your main characters, your protagonists and antagonists, the guys that drive the story. Then there are your side characters, those that add flavor to the story and either aid or hinder our heroes/villains. And then there are those that fill the rest of the world, unimportant to the plot itself and only present to give the world a feeling of life. They are: the background character.
Background characters are an often overlooked piece of the narrative puzzle. After all, it’s not like they’re doing anything for the story, right? They’re just there to fill out the setting so our protagonists and antagonists aren’t the only people around!
Well, no. See, the goings on of the background characters can, if used properly, do a lot to add to a story. Without them, you miss out on a ton of subtle little techniques that could improve your story.
Take, for example, the second Mistborn book, The Well of Ascension. In this book, the setting, the city of Luthadel, is under siege. Food and resources for the citizens are all limited as their oppressors try to wait them out.
How do you properly communicate the building stress and tension of a city slowly starving to death? Simple!
First, we see what life is like just as the siege begins. Everyone is nervous, but they have faith that they’ll be saved. Then, as the story progresses and resources start getting thinner, panic starts to rise. People start either losing their faith or doubling down on it. It’s a simple thing, but it goes a long way in naturally building tension; we can see the effects the events of the story are having on the world around our characters, not just on them.
Background characters are important for reactions. If the purpose of the main characters is to change things in the world, than the purpose of the background characters is to react to it. Through them, we can see the consequences of the actions taken by our protagonist/antagonist. Whether it be something large as saving/destroying the world or something as small as rumor going around a school, we need the background characters to show us just what these changes really mean.
This is one of the biggest shortcomings of movies like the Star Wars prequels. You’d think the largest galactic war in history would have some dramatic effect on the populace. Yet, in Revenge of the Sith, you can still see people flying about, doing their thing like nothing was wrong. If you were an average joe in the galaxy, the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire didn’t seem to affect you whatsoever. So… why should the audience care?
They’re a simple tool, yes. But an extremely effective and important one. Neglect your background characters and you neglect your world. Do that, and you may as well have your characters running around in a blank, white space.