It’s easy to be focused on your main characters and to put your creative energy as a writer into just those characters you adore – the Good Guy and the Bad Guy, mainly – and leave until last (or leave out altogether) the small guys and gals that provide background support.
I’ve read a lot of books over the years and have seen lots of variation. I have seen books where the reader got the full life history of every single character, none of them important to the plot and none of them having anything to do with any of the others, until the plane crash or motorway multiple collision – some big accident, anyway – at the end of the book (the one you were shown a glimpse of at the beginning of the book). Basically, those books seem to be an exercise in writing characters, not plots, and I’m afraid they don’t do much for me.
I’ve also seen my fair share of Main Character in all his/her glory, right down to zits and all their foibles – completely and totally surrounded by 2D nothing characters that might have been made of cardboard.
There is life in between. It doesn’t have to be a giant pain and it doesn’t have to be ignored, either.
You can flesh out a character with a word or two. Flashes of human feeling or an expressive action will do it. Very simple things can do it.
A woman standing at the doorway of her home as she’s informed of an accident is emotive, but the same woman buttering bread when her sister brings the policeman into the kitchen tells you a whole lot more than there’s been an accident.
If you haven’t met her before, there’s hints to her history and her nature all around you. Her sister is there. That could mean a close family or a small town/village where everyone knows everyone and families have members up and down the road and feel free in each others’ homes.
The fact that she’s buttering bread hints at family, young children most likely or they’d be making their own lunches (true, it could say it’s lunchtime and she’s hungry – and you can point that way by adding the detail that she’d been looking forward to eating it but is hungry no longer).
The messages here are subliminal. Into your head pops close family, small town community, children. Immediately extra anxiety is there for this character – not only has she lost someone, or have had injured somebody she cares about, the children have too. Her sister has, too. The village will soon know and the trauma will affect the entire community.
You get a bigger effect simply because the woman was buttering bread and her sister let the policeman in.
Okay, so in this case, she sounds more like a central character than a minor one, but I’m sure you get the point I’m trying to make.
It doesn’t have to be explained in detail. It can be hinted at. You don’t have to give her full history. We don’t need to know when she was married, why she chose her husband, how many children she’s got and what their birthdays are.
Dialogue is another way of doing it.
“Good afternoon to you, sir,” conjures up a whole different personality than, “Hey! Good to meet you at last. Jamie’s told me a lot about you.”
Round that off with a polite nod of the head or a full and friendly handshake and you’ve captured character.
It’s often the small characters that add the real sense of surrounding community and you can make them real very easily. You don’t have to have each in full-blown description nor overpopulate your story with them, but it’s probably wise not to leave them out.