Background Surprises: Intrigue Your Audience

It’s easy to not pay attention to the people in the world around you, to pigeonhole them into this group, that group, the other and not really pay it much mind. This lot does this. Those other people do that. PCs in RPGs (and their players, possibly more so) seem to be rather fond of this. So too, in my experience, do main characters of stories, and by extension probably their authors.

I got to thinking about trying to avoid this because of a pair of encounters with a patron at work today—one of those gregarious old ladies who are practically an embodiment of why Census listers find “A granny flat. With an actual granny in it” to be a prime source of delays. There I am, getting a couple BMPs checked out of the system, and she walks up with a book that’s been on the shelves since May, plunks it down in front of me and informs all of us that we must check it out. Given I was the only one of us who was going to have an operative library card by the time that thing was checked in, and since familiarity with the material is important, I followed her instructions.

Which brought me to the second encounter, when she was checking her own stuff out. I’d let her know that I had indeed checked out the book. Which, within a couple sentences, led to her telling me about having been nearly recruited by the CIA when she was younger, complete with having been called on a phone line her parents didn’t even know she had and told all sorts of things about herself as verification. Chalked the whole thing up to having ‘done some wild things’ at that age, and useful foreign language proficiencies. That I had not seen coming.

Knowing there are stories like that out there, attached to people you’d never expect to tell them, is a pretty powerful motivator for getting out there and listening. It’s easy, when needing to generate large casts of characters, to give them relatively cookie-cutter backgrounds, and if you do people can come to expect it. But when you take one of those cookie-cutter backgrounds and add something different to it, something unexpected, not only does that often get people’s attention, but they’re likely to take that and apply it to just about everyone else. Who knows who the next person with the Easter egg history is going to be?

While this technique is more useful with game groups, it doesn’t need to be limited to them. An author who knows herself to tend not to be too interested in her secondary characters may want to dig through them, see if they have any such stories to tell, possibly give them a few if they’re not coming up with any on their own. Whether it’s the author or the main character whose interest is piqued in that way, it’ll still probably draw authorial attention onto the minor characters, and in my experience minor characters the author wants to pay attention to are generally more interesting than those who are just there to fill a role in the plot.

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