Characters are puppets. Ultimately, they exist solely to make your story happen, to pull plot levers and fall into deadly pits, to weep and laugh and leap and dance as per the program you feed into their CPU.
Of course, part of the challenge is taking these puppets and making them seem like real people, to weave that illusion that this collection of words is actually a person whose life and internal monologue we can magically tap into. It ain’t easy, and if you recently wrote a manuscript in which your characters basically stand around until the time comes for them to pull a plot lever and unleash some hounds, if all their dialog serves to explain plot mechanisms and the like, well, you aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last.
There are a lot of ways you can make your characters feel more like human beings with motivations and depth as opposed to automatons following your script. One of the most enjoyable and effective ways is to be generous with the words and page space and give your characters some downtime.
Now is the Time on Sprockets When We Dance
If you’ve ever watched a TV show and noted a scene where characters just sort of hang out, a scene where no plot work is done, a scene that seems to exist solely so the writers can tell a few jokes, that’s downtime. Essentially it’s a scene which accomplishes zero plot advancement and isn’t even concerned much with character development. It’s just a relaxed moment where the characters hang out, interact, and exist. It’s also a fantastic way to make them seem like real people, for the simple reason that we all engage in a lot of downtime.
It can feel like an expansive waste of space, because you’re not moving the story along. You’re just having some fun and letting your characters talk. But it does so much to make them seem like real, rounded people it’s totally worth it. Plus, since it doesn’t have much to do with the plot, it’s something you can actually insert into your story after the first draft is done. You’ve got the plot, you’ve got your characters in their positions so they can pull those plot levers. Now you just go back and insert a few downtime scenes to flesh them out.
It’s also fun, assuming you actually like your characters.
Of course if you overcorrect and write an entire novel composed of downtime, congratulations, you’ve just invented the mumblecore literary genre, you bastard.