Strangers in stories

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There are more people in the world that you don’t know than people you do. A somewhat mind-boggling thought, since the first few people who come to mind will almost certainly be people you do know, but true nonetheless. In books and stories, however, we have to know all our characters. Does that mean there are no strangers in fiction?

Well, I don’t think it has to. In any given story, there will be characters – with or without plot significance – that your main characters don’t know at the start of the book. Those with plot significance usually come to meet them and form an acquaintance with at least one character – or at least with the reader – but what of the hundreds of passersby in the backgrounds of your scenes?

You don’t have to give them all rich backstories, of course, especially as they’re unlikely to become plot-relevant later on. But, especially if you’re writing a character in a busy location or waiting for a long time in one place, those strangers can help enrich your scenes in just a few words.

Maybe that’s just my opinion. I’ll be back tomorrow with more opinions, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with two versions of a scene, and you can see which you prefer. Which do you feel sets the scene better? (And no, that’s not rhetorical – by all means let me know in the comments!)

  1. Rain ran down the back of his neck and under his collar as he stood waiting for the bus. Across the road, despite the weather, the small parades of shops were as busy as ever as people scurried from doorway to doorway, seeking shelter and warmth.
    At last, the bus pulled up, a small clump of grumpy-looking people dropped out of the door, and he was free to take cover in a huddle of other passengers, clinging to a pole.
  2. Rain ran down the back of his neck and under his collar as he stood waiting for the bus. Across the road, despite the weather, the small parades of shops were as busy as ever. He watched a mother herd three small children out of one shop and into another, trying to limit the amount of splashing that happened in the puddles on the way. Ten minutes later, they were off down the road again, and one of the children’s enthusiastic landings earned her a disapproving look from an elderly man who got caught in the splash zone. For a moment, it looked as if he was seriously considering waving his stick at her, but then the moment passed and they went their separate ways.
    At last, the bus pulled up, a small clump of grumpy-looking people dropped out of the door, shaking umbrellas open and burrowing into their hoods, and he was free to take cover in a huddle of other passengers, clinging to a pole to stay upright and trying to ignore the obnoxiously loud music of a nearby passenger he couldn’t quite pinpoint the location of.
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