“Bob! The aliens are coming to steal everyone’s brains!” Sally shouted as the UFO flew down over the capital.
All 400,372 extra unimportant characters around the capital were helpless, fleeing from the scene in unity, nobody different or thinking different or going into fight mode instead of flight and, all unable to do anything to save themselves or do anything useful…
Why are all the extras identical?
Nobody’s kneeling on the ground and wailing, nobody’s staring in disbelief, nobody’s taking video on their phones, nobody’s playing dead, nobody’s trying to take a leadership role and direct everybody, nobody’s worshiping the aliens, nobody’s wheelchair bound, nobody’s committing suicide, nobody’s staring and talking about it with anybody else, nobody’s tweeting or texting about it, nobody’s charging ahead yelling “bring it on!”, nobody’s yelling at their children to run and staying behind in a hopeless effort to protect them, nobody’s getting on their knees and praying, nobody’s sitting and watching, nobody’s taking out a gun and taking a stance, no couples are holding each other and weeping, nobody’s thinking it’s some sort of elaborate joke, nobody’s just standing around in total apathy, nobody’s trying to steal purses and belongings in the chaos, nobody’s casting off all moral restraint in the moment, nobody’s charging the capital in the moment, nobody’s screaming at the UFO that “you’re not going to take my life away”, nobody’s making a dramatic speech about staying and fighting, nobody’s pushing through the crowd to see what’s going on, nobody’s trampled underfoot and their bodies left there, nobody’s thinking they’re high and it’s just a bad trip, nobody’s giving their loved ones a phone call, nobody’s giving the finger to the UFO, nobody’s yelling at people for running, nobody’s frantically looking for their child, nobody’s asking for help or directions, nobody’s pulling together a group to the side, nobody’s hiding nearby to keep an eye on what happens?
Nobody? Maybe there won’t be a character for all of those things, but for none of those things? Aren’t there enough unique people, each with unique responses, triggers, and personalities, for some of these things to happen?
Is nobody else in the city besides the main characters a unique individual? Or in that town? Or in that restaurant?
Have you ever noticed that in superhero movies that only people that fight are usually the superheroes? Not one NYC resident in The Avengers had a gun and popped a few bullets at the aliens to protect their family (if I’m wrong, please correct me). Does that reflect reality?
We often have a default character in our heads when we write that we use for every “nonessential” character. We forget that every character has a personality, life story, and will respond drastically different from everybody else.
When we create mobs of civilians or random characters, we think they’re all the same because we don’t take the time to consider the uniqueness of each individual. It is impossible to define each individual and develop them all- but we can make some guesses about the entire group of people and some subsets. Is it possible that at least 4% of the people will enter fight mode instead of flight mode, for example?
Is it possible that the crying couple in the restaurant might be approached by the waiter, a manager, and even a random person there whose job is a counselor, pastor, or life guru?
Is it possible that in that room full of 1,000 quiet students, where everybody gives a standing ovation for the speaker, a few people remain seated? (perhaps even just 1 or 2?) Maybe a few leave, offended at the speaker’s stance?
Is it possible that the room full of unhappy customers will have at least a few supportive voices and faces, or devil’s advocates?
Is it possible that we’ve forgotten the other perspectives?
We can’t develop every extra character. But we can develop the story’s world and give it more life.
Remember to consider that we’re all different.
Remember to consider that they’re all different.
Remember to consider the other 10, 100, or 10,000 perspectives.
Every character makes your story happen. Let them be themselves and have an impact like they would.