Friday, September 11

Who's There? Introducing Characters in a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at ways to introduce characters in a scene.

Have you ever walked into a room, thought you were alone, and then realized someone else was there? A little jarring, right? It's unexpected and totally throws you. Well, you can do the same thing to your readers if you forget to let them know there are other characters in the scene besides the narrator.

Readers rely on clues to ease them into the scene so they can concentrate on enjoying the story itself. They expect authors to set the scene and provide them with the necessary tools to understand what's going on. One element of that is to let them know who is lurking about.
Such characters may include:

1. The Narrator 

This is the most important clue, as readers need to know whose head they're in. In the first few paragraphs (and often the first few lines), the point of view and narrative distance is established. A first-person narrator will use a personal pronoun, such as I or my, while a third-person narrator usually uses their name. If it's third omniscient, there will be hints of the distant narrator and a sense of an outside party telling the tale. Internalization is a handy tool here for establishing your POV character and your narrative distance, especially if third person.

What this tells the reader: Who is telling the story and from what narrative distance they're telling it from.

(Here's more on knowing who your narrator is)

2. The Point of View Character 

The reader is looking through someone's eyes in the scene. In many cases the narrator and point of view character will be the same person (third omniscient is one instance where your narrator might be different from your POV character). Word choice is critical here, because if the prose dips into telling, it could signal third omniscient when it's really a tight third. Internalization can help you establish your POV and how tight a narrative distance you're at.

What this tells the reader: Whose head they're in and how close to the narrative they are.

(Here's more on point of view basics)

3. Other Characters in the Scene 

If the POV's best friend is in the room, and you don't mention that until page four, you risk jarring the reader out of the story. Unexpected names after the scene has been introduced often read like something was missed, and you don't want the reader flipping back to see where they missed seeing this character walk in. Mention another person is in the scene right away, even if it's something as simple as "Me and my best bud Todd were headed out for pizza when..." If there are groups of people, toss in a quick note so the reader knows the POV isn't alone. Characters with names signal "these guys are important, so remember them" while nameless folks can be noted, but readers know they don't have to remember who they are.

What this tells the reader: How many people are in the scene and if they need to be aware of them or not.

(Here's more on introducing characters in a scene)

Of course, if the goal is for that character to surprise the POV, then you obviously don't want to mention them. The point is the surprise.

It doesn't take much to let the reader know how many people or characters they're dealing with in a given scene. You don't need paragraphs of description or heavy exposition to get the information across if you're not ready to elaborate, and a word or two will suffice. It's like giving the reader a heads up that someone is coming.

And then they can sit back and enjoy.

How do unexpected character appearances make you feel?

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book 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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  1. Great to know that a word or two will do. I hate writing descriptions. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Absolutely! I see this all the time (and hopefully I remember to include a mention of other characters myself!). Great article. And yup--mention the character unless you want it to be a surprise!

  3. Natalie, same here. It really doesn't take much sometimes to make things clear for the reader or to fix a problem. I always go for the simple fix first and then expand if I need to.

    Carol, it's one of those little things to check on after a first draft for sure. :)