A commercial airline pilot recently described how his job gave him a sense of how large the world really is. He would leave his home in London and drive to the airport among hundreds of other motorists and pedestrians going about their daily business. At the end of the day, he would land in New York or Johannesburg or Ankara and drive to the hotel among hundreds more. Eventually, watching these people pass by and imagining their lives made him aware that the people he’d seen that morning in London were still going about their daily business, just like the people at his destinations. This simple imaginative exercise left him with a sense that the entire planet was full of individuals living out their daily lives.
It’s natural to see the world only in terms of the people you encounter every day. We all know theoretically that there are seven and a half billion more of us out there, going to school in Lagos or heading to work in Asuncion or shopping for groceries in Osaka. We’re just not aware of them. We don’t feel they’re out there the way the pilot did.
It’s also natural to see your characters only in terms of the events of your story, giving them enough background to convey their personalities, making minor characters distinctive enough to be remembered. But you can give your story more depth – make your imaginative world bigger – if you learn to pay attention to the lives that your other characters, especially minor characters, live when they’re offstage.
When you create a minor character, think about who they are when your readers aren’t watching them. What do they do for a living? What are their good and bad habits? Married? Kids? What were they doing just before they entered the scene? What will they keep doing after they exit, stage right? If you can give your readers hints of life taking place beyond the confines of your story, you’ll make your fictional world feel not only larger, but less artificial and more authentic.
I’m currently working on a mystery in which the detective, in trying to get a sense of who the main suspect is, interviews the couple who lives next door to her. This couple only appears once in the book, for a handful of pages, but in that time readers see them arguing over who the suspect was. There’s no real anger or animosity in the argument. They still love and respect one another. They just have different ways of looking at the world and are comfortable expressing them. It’s clear this argument has, in various forms, been going on for years and will continue for years to come – it’s woven into their marriage. This glimpse of their life together stretching on past that one scene makes the couple feel more real, and the writer’s world feel larger.