Constantin Stanislavski, the legendary acting teacher and author of An Actor Prepares famously said: "There are no small parts, only small actors." What he meant was that every character in a play or movie has a purpose and the actor cast even in a bit part must grant that character the same gravitas he would if he were preparing to play the lead. A good actor, even in a small part, creates a back-story and an inner life for that character, complete with speech patterns, gait, clothing choices, and a history of successes and failures that drive his/her behavior.
Good writers also do character work for walk-ons in their novels. Authors are often asked where they get their ideas. Most will tell you from everywhere: news articles, personal experiences and observations. Writers are curious people. They notice behavior and wonder what causes it. Sometimes they know. Sometimes they extrapolate meaning filtered through their own experiences. Sometimes they just make stuff up. It's fiction, after all.
Here's an example from my world:
Several times a week, I walk to the grocery store through a neighborhood of post WWII bungalows dwarfed by flashy mega-houses. Along the route I often see an older, wiry man with slicked-back gray hair, working in his front yard. I have never seen anyone in the yard with him, which makes me think he lives alone. Even on the hottest days, he wears a navy suit jacket that has seen better days. The jacket has wide lapels, padded shoulders and is paired with trousers that do not match the jacket. His dress shirt is buttoned to the neck without benefit of a tie. The ensemble is neat but seems unfashionable and old world.
The exterior of the house needs paint and repairs. There is no air conditioning unit visible. The windows in the front are usually open to catch the random puff of air. In the early days, moderate temperatures and ocean breezes cooled the houses along this street. Now, the summer months are long and hot.
Most days he is bent over, sweeping debris from the gutter in front of his house with a battered kitchen dustpan and a brush. He never looks up from his task to nod or say hello. I accept his terms. When I walk home with my bag of groceries, the gutter is spotless.
What I notice most is his front lawn. Water is expensive in L.A. and this grass hasn’t seen a drop for years. Over time, I have watched him pluck out nearly every tuft of dead grass by hand, transforming the area into a tidy field of brown dirt. Any dust that creeps onto the walkway is quickly swept away.
The peeling paint and dead grass tell me he is a man of modest means. I have never heard him speak but his clothing and demeanor lead me to believe he is an immigrant, possibly from Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
I want to know the story behind a man with this much dignity, sense of order and pride: where he’s from, why he lives alone, and what has happened in his life that allows him to find purpose in a small patch of dead lawn.
Someday I will answer these questions in a book. The character may not be this man or even a man at all. It may be a woman but she will have a dead lawn in front of a modest bungalow in the crosshairs of a developer's master plan. And she'll be a fighter, determined to keep a cherished possession gained through strife and tears. Her part may be small but she'll be a metaphor for something important in the book. I'll give her a happy ending. After all she's been through, she deserves that much, at least.