Friday, April 11, 2014

Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 

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.

Secondary Characters 

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)
They key element here is affect. If the character shows up and nothing changes, then they might not need to be there just yet. They should have some affect on what's going on, even if it's minor. They play a role in the scene, affect the plot, influence something. If you took them out, and nothing changes, maybe rethink where you introduce them.

(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? 

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Good article. Love the How I Met Your Mother reference.
    My books have multiple characters in the main characters life, and in book two he posse ups with an extra six. You are right, this is a tight rope to walk!

  2. This bit...about mentioning a character and readers wondering what the heck they're doing there...made me realize I have to do something about the nursemaid in my fairy tale. I mean, before I kill her off.

    It's always something. (Thanks!)

  3. Thanks for addressing this. It's something I've had trouble with, especially since there's a team of character that the MC meets at about the same time.

    It's broken apart a little bit, and I actually do use the other characters talking about a different character to add to it.

    As for bad guys, I can relate. The main antagonist for my MC is mentioned, though doesn't actually show up until almost halfway through the book, while two other bad guys are met in the beginning, then referenced occasionally but not actually seen again until the end of the story.

  4. Great article.

    Since I had been compressing character roles more and more, I tend to avoid situations where I introduce more than three characters at once. I also seem to be a fan of mentioning characters before they enter. For example:

    Bryan's Mom: "Was that Scout?"
    Bryan: "No." (Fortunately. Can't deal with her right now).

    Thinking about it, perhaps bringing in Scout earlier would be a great way to rise tension in the first scene.

    Adding to weekly round-up.

  5. My first novel had a ensemble of characters. I introduced the main POV characters first and then had those characters gradually experience the other players.

  6. Could you please, please, please do a post about writing multiple POV? Or direct me to an existing post? I feel like the story becomes a lot harder to describe/explain once you have more than one main character. :P

  7. Introducing characters is one of those things I'm still working on. :) I love dialogue, so I tend to bring in characters by having them strike up a conversation with my MC. Then I have to go back through what I wrote and add in a description of them because I forgot to do it while everyone was talking.

  8. JT, thanks! I love that show, and the line just popped into my head. The cast does seem to grow as a series grows doesn't it? I was shocked at how many people i had by book three.

    Cathy, oo yeah. Anytime you kill someone off, you want to spend enough time on them so readers care that they die. (cheer or cry). I'm doing that myself right now with my WIP.

    SBibb, teams are extra tough. You might try picking one or two to really focus on, and just mention the others. Then later, let them come forward more and kind of reintroduce them when they affect the story more. (if they do).

    The one good thing about antags, is that even when they're not on screen, at least they're usually doing something to talk about :) The protag is dealing with them in some way.

    Chihuahua0, thanks! The intro trick works great if balanced right. Hope it works for you :)

    Elspeth, sounds good!

    Laura, I have quite a few on multiple POV, so try these links. If you don't find what you need, let me know and I'll do a post for you :)You can also find more in the general POV tags at the bottom of the posts.

  9. Chicory, I always have to go back in and describe, to. Conversations are good, as they get they story moving right away.

  10. I kind of wonder -- going back to the part about foreshadowing characters -- In the second chapter of my book one of my characters overhears a conversation going on between a character that will reappear later, and his captain. He is mentioned, by the captain, by name. But, I wonder if that's too obvious?

  11. Great point about introducing characters through conversation. That's a very natural way to both flesh a world out & create a background for a character without mucking up exposition, etc.

    On a related note--with my current story, corporations & higher ups will play a big role in the final act but not really any role in the first act. Still, they are major presences within this world--so I work in the corporation names on products and the like, and for higher ups (like a President, say) I'll have characters read the news or discuss goings-on. This creates a "lived in" feeling, a sense that things were happening prior to the narrative and that they will continue to happen after the narrative.

    Unless the world blows up!

  12. Dani, depends on how you do it. If it doesn't feel natural it might stand out, but if it feels like a normal conversation someone overheard it's probably fine. It also depends on what else is heard in the conversation. If that's the only piece of information conveyed, it might be more obvious, but if other things are learned as well, and the scene affects the plot, then the reader might not even notice it. If the ONLY reason they hear that is to get the name, then you might consider adding some more info that fits whatever else is going on in that scene.

    Of course, anytime someone overhears a conversation anywhere the reader can assume it means something. Otherwise, why would we write that scene, right? (grin) But that can work in your favor since now the reader might be wondering about that character.

  13. Sam, (hit post too soon, hehe) that's sounds like great world building to me. :)

  14. This is some excellent advice!! I remember when I first started writing and juggled so many characters there was no room for extras, lol.

    1. I be almost everyone has too many at first. :) I should take a poll one day. "Common things we all do when we first start writing" lol

  15. I like the method in characters mentioning other characters as a way to introduce them. Handy in my story where a character who doesn't make an appearance until much later due to being imprisoned.

    Now let's say I have many important characters in one scene which have yet to be introduced but the main character already know their names. Would giving each new important character a brief description and their name the first time any of them spoke would be an ideal method to introduce them without giving the readers too many names.
    I picked up this technique in Brandon Sanderson's Way of the Kings where one of the POV characters had a company of bridgemen with him which the author decided to reveal their names and gave them a description when they were relevant or speaking to the POV character rather than giving their names when the POV asked them one by one which the author summarized.

    1. That would work. Focusing a little more on them would be a way to signal readers to pay attention, and if they're now officially "in" the story, that would help establish them in readers' minds.