Six impossible things

Recruiting Extras

I keep running into the problem of “the main characters seem to be the only people in the setting.” Might I beg a post on how to do crowd scenes (or scenes in general) where there are lots of people in the background? –Question from Deep Lurker

First off, the writer has to be aware. If your attention is focused too tightly on your main characters, then it won’t occur to you that there is anyone else present, and if you don’t realize that there are other folks around, you won’t think to mention them. Awareness usually starts with pausing briefly before (or sometimes during) a scene to ask “Who else could be around?”

The answer to this depends on the place, time, and current action of the scene. A public marketplace is likely to be crowded at noon and empty at midnight…but at midnight you could have street sweepers, police or city guards, lamplighters, and even a vendor who’s still packing up. At noon, you could have not only vendors and shoppers, but police, pickpockets, and someone busking for the crowd. And if the action involves the Zombie Apocalypse in progress, then there isn’t likely to be anyone at the market no matter what time of day it is.

You aren’t looking for new characters here. You’re looking for extras – the people walking along a crowded New York City sidewalk, the sightseers at the Eiffel Tower, the fans in town for the World Cup, the 295 other soldiers in the battalion your 5 main characters belong to. Also, at this point you aren’t saying they are present; you are just saying they could be, that this is a place and time and circumstance where you wouldn’t be surprised to run into someone like them.

If you are doing this for the first time, or if you are a very analytical sort, you may want to make an actual list. I usually just think for a minute about what kinds of people might be present, especially the ones who might be a little less obvious (and hence, to me, more interesting). If I come up with someone who is very non-obvious and I am pretty sure I want to use him/her, I might jot that one down somewhere so I don’t forget about them when I’m writing the scene. Because that’s the next step: making some tentative decisions about which of those possible people you actually want to use in the scene (as opposed to having them be present by implication).

(Implication is the second bit that trips up a lot of writers. If they set their scene “in a crowded market” in the first line, they figure the crowd has been established, and is there by implication through the next three to six pages of scene, even if they never mention it again. This happens not to be the case.)

How you use your extras will likely affect which ones you pick from your “possibly on stage” list to actually be on stage, i.e., get mentioned. The following is a non-exhaustive list of ways to think of and use your extras; pick the ones that suit your style and process, try to throw in some of the others once in a while for variety, and then try making up some new ones of your own.

Part of the Background: If your main characters are at a large party, there are other people around. They will be dressed appropriately and doing party things – if it’s a Victorian ball, some will be dancing; if it’s a modern cocktail party, people will be standing around with liquor glasses; if it’s a 1930s card party, everyone will be sitting at little tables with stacks of cards. Periodically, these background people will do something – change partners, refill their glass, shuffle and deal the cards. This is part of the setting, and you work bits into the scene every so often as they impinge on your viewpoint character, because this is nearly always a more effective way of conveying the background than putting everything in one large lump of description at the start of the scene and then ignoring the setting completely for the next three to six pages. If your main characters are walking down the street or moving from room to room, mention the people they pass as well as the furnishings or buildings.

Pacing your characters: Your extras will not be standing around doing nothing, but what they do is not vital to your plot – that is, after all, why they’re extras. However, while your main characters are having their intense, plot-relevant conversation, there will come times when you want a pause in the dialog. One way of doing this is with stage business – having the next character sip her cocktail or fiddle with his car keys – but another way is to have a character (or the narrator) notice what else is going on (the band has switched to a slow dance; the woman arguing about the price of baskets is leaving in a huff). This works especially well when the POV character needs to pause and think for a moment, but you don’t want to actually show every bit of his/her internal monolog because he/she is going to repeat most of it out loud in the next line.

Pacing yourself: Sometimes, you need a break in the conversation or the action because you need to give the reader a moment to absorb all the information you’ve just provided. Sometimes, you get to a point in a conversation where you go completely blank about what gets said next. Having an extra interrupt briefly (“Would you like another cocktail, madame?”) can allow enough of a break in the conversation to let you start over. You don’t want to use this one too often, as it gets a little obvious, but it can get a stuck scene moving again in an emergency.

Characterization: What people notice tells you something about them, whether it’s about who/what they find interesting (Character A always notices the pretty girls; Character B spots every concealed weapon on casual passers-by) or about whether their attention is wandering away from the current conversation. This is mostly useful for the POV, unless she’s B and A is really obvious about checking out the hot chicks.

Worldbuilding: Whatever your extras are doing in the background, it is likely to be whatever typical people of the particular place, time, and culture do in these circumstances. If there are interesting differences – say, whenever a deal is successfully concluded at the market, the seller shoots purple sparks into the air – you can mention your extras doing them, and allow your main characters to notice and react (if they are unfamiliar with the custom, or irritated by it), or ignore it the way people ignore billboards when they’re driving. Either way, you imply something about the culture and your main characters, while mentioning that there are other people around doing things.

Chorus/Reaction: If your main characters are doing something that attracts attention, like a fight or some showy magic or a dangerous public rescue, they are in all likelihood going to end up with a crowd of gawkers, who can be made to gasp, shout encouragement, or heckle, depending on what’s going on. Only rarely do you want everyone in the crowd reacting exactly the same way (you don’t want to create a laugh track for your story), but you can give similar reactions on the same scale (say, the guy edging along the ledge twenty stories up seems to slip; you could have several of the watchers gasp, one give a high-pitched inappropriate laugh, and a woman look away while covering her child’s eyes with her hand. That’s three different specific reactions, but all of them boil down to “OMG, he almost fell!” And it establishes that there are a bunch of people watching).

11 Comments
  1. Thank you!

    “Implication is the second bit that trips up a lot of writers.” Yeah, and I’m one of them :/

    How to use your extras – that, I think, is the core advice I really needed. I do tend to be over-sparse with background description in general, and not using my extras is a part of this.

    Again, thank you!

  2. Recently I had a beta reader tell me I needed to add more setting in my book, and this provides me with a perfect way of doing it without detracting from the plot. It can even help 🙂 Thanks.

  3. One problem I have with extras is that they want to have names. Not so much the people in the marketplace (though some of them), but the coworkers and the distant relations and the small-town neighbors . . . I’m definitely guilty of having too many characters to start with, so I really do try to avoid having too many extraneous extras with names — but a lot of people know the names of more people than it’s convenient to have in the story. I do my best to shuffle some of the named people elsewhere (and one of the worst offenders has solved the problem by refusing to remember the name of anyone he doesn’t see at least every day), but I can only use either trick so many times.

    I don’t know that this is really focused enough to be a blog post all itself, but I’ll take suggestions from anyone who has them.

    • Miriam – Just because they have names, does that mean you have to use them? The only suggestion that comes to mind is to substitute short, pithy descriptions for the names — “the scruffy pilot and his hairy alien friend” instead of Han Solo and Chewbacca. For some reason this is easier for readers to absorb without feeling overloaded, even though you’re actually giving them more information, not less.

      Would your extras hold still for that?

      • As Mary and Kim have pointed out below, it’s not so much that the extras need names as that the character would know their names.

        For example, the police officer knows the people who work the same shift as she does, particularly the other low-level police officers who work in her office. Or the governmental investigator knows his secretary, which is reasonable, but also the guy across the hall and the head of the department, and the head of the department’s secretary, and the techie who does consults, and the guy from the magic department . . .
        And even if these people *aren’t* there, their absence is noteworthy in and of itself, and one can’t always get away with calling them “everyone else” — or finding a reason for them not to be around.

    • Oh, yes, it’s a real trick when the point of view character would think of them by name.

    • I have this problem too, since my story is set in a small town, so my main character probably does know almost everyone’s name. Should the narration refer to everyone by name since that’s how the MC thinks of them? Or does giving any character a name imply that the reader needs to pay particular attention to them and remember them?

  4. “You don’t want to create a laugh track for your story”

    Oh dear — my brain immediately went to a technology that registers where the reader’s eyes are tracking while reading a text, and the “book” supplies laughter or other canned audience response at appropriate times.

    I have no doubt this would be even more irritating than the laugh track in TV comedies, conceived of, I’m sure, by producers who were too insecure about the material (or who underestimate their viewers).

  5. If your main characters are walking down the street or moving from room to room, mention the people they pass as well as the furnishings or buildings.

    Yep, this. While going over the latest chapter with my alpha-reader, I used the phrase “self-mobilizing scenery” — i.e., extras, one-off characters my main character interacts with to some degree (walking past them counts as interacting for this purpose) but who aren’t going to turn up again (unless I find a use for them later). She laughed, but that really is how I think of them; they go in the same processing category as the artificial full-spectrum lighting and whether the underground facility has live plants or not.

  6. A technique that worked for me was to use the audience at a talk show via an occasional quick reaction line – in italics. So it pointed out that there was an auditorium full of people watching live, but they weren’t part of the conversation. Then, when one of the interviewees plays to the audience, they can appreciate it – but they’re quiet the rest of the time.

    Here’s an example bit from an interview by Dana, host of Night Talk, of Andrew O’Connell, actor:

    “We’ll be waiting for it anxiously.” Dana acknowledged the swell of applause. “Now, tell us about your band, the Deadly Nightshades.”
    Hooting from the crowd.
    “They’re all very shy fellows.”
    Laughter.
    “You’ve been playing together a long time.”
    “Since we were barely out of nappies.” And never enough time any more.

    The audience fades away and comes back as I need a reaction, but I don’t go on too long without giving them a quick line, so they don’t disappear completely.

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