As a reader and beta reader, one of the things that stands out to me is when a secondary character does or says something halfway through a scene and my reaction is, “Huh. I forgot they were even there.”
We forget sometimes as writers that our readers don’t have the benefit of watching a scene as it plays out in our own heads. We know the butler’s still there because in our mental image of the scene, he’s visually present. When it plays out in our head, we can focus on the more interesting banter between the hero and villain. But our readers aren’t in our head, and need us to keep the scene alive by the words on the page alone.
Taken to an extreme, this is a kind of “floating heads” problem. There, the issue is that the entire scene disappears and we only have the back-and-forth dialogue with no action beats or interaction with the setting, as if the two characters were heads floating on a blank screen. In this particular case, it’s only the secondary characters that disappear, instead of the entire setting. But disappearing and reappearing secondary characters makes your scene flatter and less real. It steals your verisimilitude, and is more distracting than having them present throughout.
Every Character Has Initiative
In tabletop role-playing games, a common game structure for important scenes is for each character to roll a die to randomly determine the order in which they may act during each round of action. This is known as “initiative order.” When it comes to their turn, they may take a certain number of actions, or forego some or all of them, but every character has a chance to act in every round.
For your own scenes, make a list of the characters present in the room, including secondary and background characters. If they’re present, they get an initiative order, right down to the dog at the MC’s feet.
As you step through the scene, ask yourself, “How would this character be thinking, feeling, acting, and reacting in this moment?”
Obviously your main characters will have center-stage. You’re not going to go into the same kind of detail with the butler as you would the villain. The butler needs to be present, though. They need to be a real person reacting to events as they unfold.
Keep your Initiative Order
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s easier to keep track of your characters’ responses if they happen in the same order each round. For example: Your hero speaks, your villain responds, your butler reacts. It may feel formulaic to you as the writer, but it will allow your reader to make better sense of what’s happening in the scene and improve your flow.
Every Action has a Reaction
The villain throws his drink in the hero’s face. How would every character in the room react to this? It can be as slight as the butler’s hiss of indrawn breath or as significant as the hero throwing a punch, but your characters are real people and part of the scene. They will react as real people. That doesn’t mean they have to act in every round, but they should respond to what’s going on in the scene.
In this over-the-top cliche villain scene, I have established an “initiative order” of villain –> butler–> hero. Sometimes their turns overlap, but everyone is present throughout the scene. The scene is from the hero’s POV.
Baddy McBadGuy smirked and leaned back in his chair. “And how do you expect to stop me?” [villain action]
On cue, Jeeves placed a slim manilla folder in his employer’s hand. [butler reaction] Hero von Goodie tossed the folder on the table to the left of his plate without breaking eye contact with the man across the table. “With this.” [hero reaction + action]
Baddy’s smirk didn’t falter, but his eyes shifted briefly to the unassuming folder before snapping back to Hero’s. “Paper? Paper is so fallible, so easy to buy, so easy to destroy.” [villain reaction + action]
Hero held his glass out for Jeeves to fill with more of the ten-year-old Médoc, [butler reaction + hero reaction overlap] letting silence draw out the tension. It was a dangerous game, but only someone with the power and influence of the von Goodie name stood a chance of bringing down this empire of evil. “Enough paper, McBadGuy, and even you can be buried under it. All it needs to do is create doubt in the minds of the right people.” [hero action]
McBadGuy took the stem of his own wine glass and began to spin it on the tablecloth, the light of the chandelier setting the dark wine aglow. [villain reaction] He’d done that before, at the fundraiser dinner when he found out his warehouse was about to be raided. So then, even McBadGuy had a tell. “People are so fallible,” Baddy said in the same deceptively casual tone of voice, “so easy to buy, so easy to destroy.” [villain action]
Jeeves stiffened beside Hero. [butler reaction] There was the threat Hero had expected. They must be as reflexive a response for this man as breathing. The trouble with reflexes, of course, is that they lacked control. Hero studied McBadGuy’s face and raised his glass to the man before taking a sip. I’ve got you. [hero reaction]
Cheesiness aside, note that the butler doesn’t intrude on the scene with any dialogue or major action, but he doesn’t disappear from it, either. As a background character he becomes part of the setting that responds to the actions of the main characters without affecting them. They keep initiative order so that I’m sure every character has an opportunity for a reaction and action, whether or not they use both on their turn. This is particularly important when there are multiple background characters in play, as it is easy to lose one in the shuffle.
Note that if you have am anonymous crowd (e.g. an audience at a concert or mass of people in a train station), they can react en masse, or through representatives. For the crowd’s turn in the initiative order, a guy in a Yankee’s hat can whistle at the MC, a woman with tightly restrained hair and a business suit can sigh at a declaration of love, or a child can start to cry at someone’s raised voice. The crowd is a character, even if you give us glimpses into its individual aspects.