Monday, May 5, 2008

The rich lives of background characters

Every one of my storytelling efforts is a chaotic conglomeration of countless characters. Complexity is my drug of choice. In my mind is an archive of hundreds of my characters - each one stuffed with history and back story. It doesn't matter if that information never makes it to the page; by knowing minor characters' motivations I can create a richer tale.

What can I say, I'm a guy who watched Star Trek and wondered if the show used the same stable of actors to play miscellaneous crew. It just seemed sloppy to have new extras every week. Wouldn't it be more fun to see the same person popping up in the background again and again? Maybe some lowly ensign (that remained unkilled) could rise through the ranks as the seasons progress - even if he never once speaks or gets addressed by the main cast. That's an awesome touch! For a less geeky twist, imagine the show Lost. There are 40+ survivors out there, although most are boring. I've never checked for, fear of disappointment, but I hope the show reuses the same group of extras for continuity's sake. The hard core fans demand it!

Subtle touches aside, creating characters is a fun challenge for me. We might not ever see this character do anything, but any regular characters in the story hanging around them would. Those characters would be subtly shaped by that random figure walking by in the distance.

What I'm getting at - the Precocious kids have parents. Parents that have shaped them into the crazy souls they are. I'd be remiss if I didn't give them their time to shine. In fact, the second story arc is all about the main cast's parents. With them in the story as full characters, I have that many more opportunities for storylines.

But what of the other kids in the class? I'm planning a story for the future that revolves around a PTA bake sale. Parents will be needed, even if they don't get a line. The challenge falls to me now to figure out exactly who these parents are. I've got to look at their children and reverse engineer. It's a fun experiment, and I'm giving it a shot. My goal is to figure out the families of the nine remaining kids in the class.

So here is an example of the thought process behind the ancestry of one of my characters. In this case, I will examine one of the major secondary characters: Dionne Crup.

Dionne is Bud's foil - a girl who uses her intelligence to exploit the weaker elements. Instead of ignoring the normal world - which is Bud's MO - Dionne actively attacks it. She's a pageant girl, who dolls herself up and then sings, dances and fakes her way to victory. Now, even Dionne isn't so malicious that she'd take this path on her own. She started pageantry because of her parents.

First, what about physical appearance? Because she is from the upper-class Diamond Bluffs, I made Dionne a high-end animal: A cheetah. Logically, at least one of her parents must be a cheetah. Dionne's coloring is also improbable for a cheetah (artistic choice/I can't draw that well yet) so we'll explain that by making her a mixed breed. Her father could be a cheetah and her mother, keeping with the high-end models, a black panther.

Now comes the question of Dionne's family life. Her personality clearly implies she is an only child, so there's no need to think up siblings. Next, we look at her parents' relationship. Is Dionne the product of a happy home? There's no easy way out of this. It could seem cheap if Dionne is twisted from divorce and unbelievable if her parents are happy and pleasant. I'm going with divorced.

Coming from a rich lifestyle, I can see Dionne's mother using her gifted daughter as a status symbol. This would explain the pageantry. Dionne is smart enough to see the motivations behind these acts, but she clearly loves pleasing her mother and enjoys the game. Dionne's pageant wins, along with paychecks from her commercial work, would be the best revenge for a father that left them long ago.

It's time to give the mother a name. Dionne is pretty-looking name, but it can sound flat when pronounced. Still, should one wish, the lettering could imply a fancier voice. (DEE-ON vs Di-yonne.) The mother's name should fit with that. Something like Caryn. That's a name that can be pronounced boring (Karen) or fancy (Cah-rin). I like it. It's because of that borderline fanciness Dionne was given the ugly last name of Crup. There's no way around it, Crup sounds awful. Thus, class and power are needed to offset it.

Another twist appears. Exactly whose last name is Crup - the mother or father? I'm still torn on this. Logically, it would be the father's last name. While I imagine the divorce happened when Dionne was still a toddler, his name would be on Dionne's birth certificate. If Crup was Caryn's last name, that would make her too similar to your stereotypical pageant mom - the ugly southern women barely removed from hickdom and happy to pimp her girl around. Dionne's goal is to make fun of those women, so it's no good if her mom is one. No, Caryn has lived a full live of privilege. She is a panther, after all, which is still exotic.

My current solution (and this could change) is to have Crup be the name of her stepfather. Caryn could have married again years ago (say when Dionne was five or six) after meeting a man who is a great match for her. This is not implying a knight in shining armor by any means. Percy Crup (a first name I made up on the spot) is not an exotic species, but just a regular house cat type. He'd be flawed, but proactive and upwardly mobile. An advertising executive? Small business owner? Real estate agent? (Dear lord...he could be the character, formerly Robert Dobbs, that sold the Pingos their house!)

In some strips I have written for Dionne, I've implied that much of the money she has earned has been wasted on her parents' shopping sprees and online gambling - two clear signs of people who enjoy disposable income. (Provided it's casual gambling and not a gambling addiction - which, as creator, I can say it is.) It might not be the sweetest family on the block (that would be Max's) but it's a happy life for every Crup.

And there you have it. Dionne has a family. When it's time for the PTA story, there will be an elegant looking panther with flashy earrings in the back who seems annoyed and uninterested. At first opportunity, she'll write the other parents a check and drive off in her cherry red sports car.

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