Writing is a creative endeavor, but a lot of it is the technical aspect of controlling when and where information is supplied to the reader. Throw too much at them and they're overwhelmed, too little and they're lost. The same goes for introducing characters. How do you know when (and where) to shove a character onto the page?
Different level characters will have different entry points, but they'll all show up at the same thematic time: When they start affecting the story.
Main characters are easy. They're the first character introduced since they're the one telling the tale. Readers typically meet them within the first few lines, even if you might not name them for a while (if it's first person).
If you have a multiple POV (point of view) story, the other major characters will arrive when their part of the story becomes the main focus. Sometimes this is the next chapter, sometimes this is a quarter of the way through the book when the novel changes parts. Wherever their story starts.
A word of warning here: spending two hundred pages in one POV and then suddenly changing to another can be jarring to the reader, so if you have multiple POVs, consider carefully how and where you switch. If the story changes focus later on, clear breaks like "part two" can help differentiate the sections and make the transition less jarring.
These characters can come in at any time, though you usually see them early on in the book. You don't typically introduce new characters at the end of the story who play a larger role. It can feel like someone swooped in out of the blue, a little deus ex machina. Things to consider:
- When is the first interaction between the character and your protagonist?
- When does your protagonist first become aware of them?
- When do their actions first affect the protagonist ?
- When do their actions first affect the plot or story?
- When might their arrival mess up the protagonist's plans? The antagonist's plan?
- When might their arrival be just what the protagonist needs? (be careful with this one so it doesn't feel contrived)
(Here's more on how much page time to give secondary characters)
Introducing a Character Without "Introducing a Character"
Here's a great trick if you have a lot of characters to introduce, or some that don't really do anything until later in the story.
Have other characters mention them.
If Miguel is an important part of the story, but he doesn't actually affect the story until halfway through the book, introducing him and spending page time early on can make readers wonder why he's there. But if you have your characters talk about him, even if in off-hand way, it puts Miguel in the reader's mind. When he shows up later, he won't feel out of the blue. Think of it as foreshadowing for characters.
This is especially true for bad guys. Antagonists play an important role, but they don't always spend a lot of time in the spotlight. But they'll be someone the protagonist talks about, and is actively acting against. Odds are the protagonist will be talking about them long before the reader ever meets them.
(Here's more on introducing characters in a scene)
Give Readers Time to Absorb Who's in the Room
Readers can only take in so much at a time, so be wary of throwing too many people at them too fast if you want them to remember who they are. How much time you spend on an character will also signal who's important. Walk-on roles that get a page of description and consideration by the protagonist practically flash "remember me" at readers. If that character is never seen again, readers will wonder why and might even think they missed something or that there's a loose end. They'll expect that character to play a bigger role since the author drew focus to them.
Conversely, spending too much time on a minor character that becomes important later (or one that holds the key to a problem) can telegraph what you plan to do and give it all away. Think about all the times you've seen/read something that was clearly a plant that was going to come back and be the thing that saves the day in the climax. Make sure whatever a character does in a scene matters to that scene so it feels like it belongs, and it's not just a preview. If those details will also matter later, so much the better.
(Here's more on telegraphing your plot)
Roll Call Introductions
It's not uncommon to see a bunch of characters and have the protagonist mention them all at once. Say at a meeting or in a classroom. Not noticing people might feel odd to the reader, even if they don't care who those people are and they play no role in the story. But the protagonist can acknowledge they're there without naming them.
Jane was sitting with her cronies from work. (people are there, but it doesn't matter who they are)
Zachary ignored the stares of the Debbies. (noticing them, but making it clear they aren't characters readers need to remember)
It can be tempting to try to get everyone in at once, but until there's a reason for the reader to care who this character is, there's no reason to bring them out. Just like backstory or infodumping, introduce characters when they start affecting the story, wherever that may be.
(Here's more on introducing characters)
Characters make the story come alive, but when they're all trying to get the reader's attention it can distract from that story. Don't feel you have to stop the story to explain who every character is and what their relationship to the protagonist is. A little goes a long way, so don't be afraid to say just what needs to be said about a character to understand what's going on in a scene and then move on. You have an entire book for readers to get to know your characters.
How do you introduce your characters? Do you bring them out early on, all at once, or spoon-feed the reader with them over multiple characters?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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