A smoky meeting room. Austere nobility on one side, shifty spacers on the other. Business is discussed. Subtext lurks and shifts below, with daggers. Moves and counter-moves. There are whispers, glances, and notes are scribbled by scribes. In the background, a bodyguard is standing. She says nothing. There’s a whispered joke at her expense. She notices, but she keeps her mouth shut. It’s not her role to speak. What’s important is that she notices.
She might say nothing, but she’s hurt. She’s angry. She’s not just part of the furniture - she’s part of the scene. The roleplayer behind that bodyguard could just have a stoic statue who doesn’t react to anything - but not noticing doesn’t matter. It’s not interesting. What’s interesting is noticing, and making a choice: to act, or not.
We’ve all seen doormen and bodyguards. They crop up in RP routinely. They sidle into our favourite TV shows, and books, and films, and everything. Background characters are essential, but the background doesn’t have to be two dimensional. When the Ancillary Characters live and breathe and react and choose, the world comes alive. Main characters of any scene are inherently less interesting if they operate in a vacuum. If their choices only impact each other, the story becomes a soap-opera. When actions echo through every character in a scene, they matter.
Background gives context to foreground, and the Ancillary Characters of one scene will be the main characters in another - at least, in roleplay. Some people like to play background roles, but no-one likes to be stuffed at the back of the room all the time. If your character has the focus of the scene, spare a thought to those who don’t. Give them choices to react to, give them attention, don’t treat them as less important just because the focus isn’t on them.
At the same time, when you find yourself at the back of the room, don’t switch off. Don’t tab out and watch YouTube. React. Choose. Invest your character in something. It doesn’t have to be what the main characters are talking about. It could be another guard across the room. It could be a crumb they’re trying to hide, or a flask they’re sneakily sipping from. You’re not that one tree in a school play. Your character is still a character, so characterise.
The written world comes alive when the background characters and foreground characters react to each other.
The business meeting ends on a sour note. The spacers shuffle away. Nobility straighten stiffly. A scribe asks the noblewoman if she can spare her bodyguard for a drink. Looks are exchanged. It’s highly irregular. The bodyguard looks hopeful. After that meeting, she could do with some decompression.
Half an hour later, and they’re at the bar, drinking and laughing. They’re now the focal characters, because of a decision made by the previous set. The conversation they have will fuel further plots, and give context to future decisions.
What if the scribe’s side pick a fight with the bodyguard’s? It’s no longer a matter of two factions - it’s two friends on opposite sides of a political chasm. Maybe they’ll whisper in the ears of their masters, to try to stop it happening. Maybe they’ll accept it with grim resignation.
Either way, it gives weight to the story. Consequence to the action. Dimension to the background. Roleplay isn’t just about the major players. By nature, there are no main characters. It’s about the all the small parts coming together into the bigger picture - but you really need the small parts to make that picture. You need the doormen and bodyguards to be doormen and bodyguards, otherwise you may as well roleplay without them.
And then it would be a lot emptier around here.