Last updated on September 23, 2011
In building a story, we often have at least two different columns on our tracking sheets: one for characters, and one for setting. What goes in the one column does not go in the other. But as I said in last week’s “Worldbuilding Wednesday,” the environment can act as a character in its own right. Today, I’m talking about the converse to that. The characters that are actually setting in your story.
Not every living being in your story can be the star. Or even a major player. Many are just bit parts; walk-ons who deliver a line or perform an action or two, then fade back into the scenery, their main purpose being to populate a world that your mains are affecting. Yes, these characters all have stories of their own–Henchman A is really a sweet family guy who loves kittens and is only working for the Evil Overlord because the benefits are good and he has a sick daughter who wants to play piano.
We can’t afford to distract the reader with Henchman A’s sad story of pathos, because it takes away from the main storyline and our deliberate subplots. Of course, Henchie might just become Sequel Bait in the future, but that takes work, planning, and a brutally honest writer to figure out whether or not Henchie deserves to be Sequel Bait, or just Cannon Fodder.
But neither can our characters walk around like Will Smith in I Am Legend, their only companions the escaped animals from the Bronx Zoo and a bunch of creepy mannequins set up to simulate people. We need Moving Furniture. The people who populate the crowd shots, who bump into our MCs, who drive their cabs, bag their groceries, and make sure the double-decaf extra-foamy soy with a shot of amaretto is waiting, fresh and hot.
Unlike Clever Sidekicks, Best Friends, or Wacky Neighbors, or even Walk-Ons, the Moving Furniture is just part of the scenery that moves. People who don’t directly affect your mains emotionally (beyond being momentarily grateful for that coffee) need to be in the story as part of the scenery, not in your cast of characters. That means they don’t get names, their appearance is mostly not remarkable, and you don’t focus your own attentions on them for too long, lest your reader begin to wonder at a significance that might not be there.
Like extras in a play, the Moving Furniture are placed along with the sets. And like other elements of setting, they are noticed–or not noticed–through your characters’ eyes. If you give them actions, movement, small speaking roles and their behaviors affect your main characters somehow, consider re-thinking those behaviors. The greasy-spoon waitress who yells your main’s hash-brown preference at the diner is part of the scenery, but no moreso than the countertops, the vinyl upholstery, or the other background noise of idling trucks and frying potato product. Spend any more time on her than that, and she becomes a Person of Interest.
If those behaviors affect the plot, then you also need to keep track of the Moving Furniture because if you don’t, it’ll either trip up one of your mains, or become a Loose End. A passer-by who gives your main driving directions when asked is a little more than Moving Furniture. Not much, but a little.
Like other aspects of the world you are building, your Moving Furniture extras need to reflect the truths you are going to be expressing in your story. If you’re telling a story of the horrors of war, a young mother pushing a baby carriage is not going to end up being Moving Furniture. What she represents doesn’t mesh with the scenery in a war horror story. Her very existence underscores the awfulness of war, and that makes her something much more significant.
Don’t be afraid to use people as furniture. They are a subtle way of making your world a living, breathing place.