I came across a photography project the other day that was my kind of thing. Judy Starkman, a photographer in Los Angeles, became curious about the various people that frequented her local public pool. As a group they are swimmers, but individually the men and women in Starkman’s project have varied lives and interests. So she created a public art project she calls “The Secret Life of Swimmers.”
The project resonated with me for a couple of reasons: First off, the details for each individual that the photo sets revealed. What writer hasn’t wondered about (and, um, made up elaborate details for) the lives of passing strangers? Imagining what makes others tick is heady stuff, and it lends itself well to making stories. I borrow (and embellish) the traits of people I see out and about to build a character like a sparrow collects grass and fluff to build its nest.
Secondly, I was curious about Starkman’s subjects as an ensemble, and the relationships they might have. I’m trying to be efficient with my current work-in-progress and more conscious of giving characters weight to their bones before I get to the revision phase. It’s slowing down the writing, but I think (hope) it will pay off in the long run. Revision is when most characterization gets polished, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start with a stronger base. So, Starkman’s subjects all swim in the same pool. We can make an analogy of the pool being the story, and those that swim there are our characters. You could say that the swimmers can’t know that they’re in a pool for the analogy to really work, but let’s not get that existential. We could focus on a variety of components; community, diversity, transformation. Why are these people sharing a pool? Unless your protagonist is a particularly hunky lifeguard, they aren’t going to be there for him. They are at that pool for their own self-absorbed reasons, not to help your protagonist swim laps or lend him a warm towel. A couple of them are probably even hogging lanes or peeing in the deep end, if you’re going to be realistic.
The secondary characters should have their own lives. Sure, they are often referred to as supporting characters, but they shouldn’t be particularly interested in helping the protagonist get what he wants or moving the story along. You probably already know your protagonist pretty well—what they think they need, what they really need, how they work things out, and dialogue patterns or habits that give them a distinctive voice. You’ve probably filled out one of the many character worksheets out there (like this one). But, have you given that much thought to all of the characters in your novel? They might offer great one-liners or keep the action going, but are they fully developed? Distinctive characters endear and/or interest the reader and help move the story along. Dull characters don’t. Each of your characters should have their own distinctive voice. Two of my secondary characters were very similar in my last manuscript. I could have worked on making them more distinctive, but I didn’t need to, so I just kept one to work on while cutting the other.
Choices and mannerisms show who people are, in the real world and in fiction. That’s an aspect of that whole -show-don’t-tell thing. Is your hero’s friend Henry clingy? Don’t say it outright; show it through his idiosyncrasies and dialogue. Sometimes when I’m drafting I use a trait as a prompt for a quick exercise that I might use to work on detail.
Example: Henry is clingy.
Great. Not so much for Henry, but for the exercise. Next I’ll write a few sentences to back it up:
Henry is clingy. His dad got pretty aloof after Henry’s mom died. Henry can’t remember ever hugging his dad. Not at the funeral, and not when he broke his ankle on the trampoline last summer. And his dad has never let him get a pet, even after Henry saved his allowance to join the ASPCA. Not even one of those miserable beta fish.
Now, Henry calls his girlfriend at least three times a day, even when he knows she’s in class. When a party is over, he’s usually the last to leave, and he offers to help clean up. More than once.
There are details that show how and why Henry is the way he is. Most of the time this kind of exercise just stays in my notes, but maybe Henry can call and interrupt class a couple of times, or he might mention that his dad won't care if he gets home past curfew. And, for the record, if Henry is just clingy he will also be flat. Maybe he collects ferret figurines and has a wicked sense of humor. He might be able to quote Mark Twain when the occasion arises. Add dimensions. You can invent a whole backstory about each character and what makes them how they are, but 90+% should be left out of a revised draft. You don’t have to spell out everything you know. If you write it well enough, your readers will believe and accept that this is how your characters would be in real life. Trust the reader. If you put in the right details, they'll put some of the pieces together themselves.
The people add the life to the story like the swimmers slosh the water in the pool. Mention who wears goggles or can hold their breath the longest, but get to know who they are outside of the story pool, too.
And if you have any creepers just sitting in the bleachers watching everybody else swim? Kick ‘em out.