New characters with history

On May 6, 2011, Monica Mari wrote, ….I spend pages introducing characters, and am trying to figure out a way around it. And I have a few events that take place before some of my characters are introduced, and so it seems to come out of nowhere. Would you have any advice?

I asked for clarification, and Monica Mari answered, ….I end up introducing semi-main characters halfway through my stories, and they end up playing large roles later on, but for things to go as planned, they must be introduced after events that occur beforehand. Friends and family have told me that they are a bit confused with the suddenly introduced characters, as they appear out of nowhere as they were not introduced beforehand, and then they became important to large points in the plot.

This sounds like two questions, one about introducing characters and the second about plot. My post of 6/29/11 relates to the first, so you may want to revisit it. I’ll add only a few new thoughts:

When we meet people in real life we don’t get the benefit of introductory material, which might come in handy. A friend, let’s call her Justine, just today told me how a friend of hers, let’s call her Irma, made it hard for Justine to get necessary dental work. Justine couldn’t understand why Irma was being unhelpful (Justine needed help) until Irma confessed a childhood dental trauma. Ah. But if they hadn’t been friends the confession might never have been made and Irma’s actions would have remained a mystery.

In fiction we usually do include the confession because we want our characters’ behavior to be believable. But generally we don’t jump in with the secret information instantly. We wait and let the characters reveal themselves just as people do, through action, dialogue, maybe appearance, and, in the case of main characters, thoughts. Lengthy introductions hold up the story.

If your characters need lengthy introductions – I’m just guessing – your plot may be over-complicated or there may be a lot of back story that you’re trying to bring in. If the back story is the problem, you may want to start your story at an earlier time and let the back story be part of the actual tale.

I tend to over-complicate. My too energetic imagination waves new ideas in front of my mind’s eye, and I start weaving them in. Often they work, but sometimes they don’t. I told one of my versions of Beloved Elodie to my husband, and his eyes rolled back in his head. I wound up starting over.

Not that you have to go back to the beginning. But you may want to think about what’s important to your story and how you can streamline. It should be possible to summarize your plot briefly. Let’s try this on a few classics. Hamlet: A just, ethical, and feeling prince suspects his mother and uncle of murdering his father and can’t decide how to act. Pride and Prejudice: A single young woman of sense and decided opinions is wooed by a wealthy young man with sense and deep feelings but an exaggerated idea of his importance. Jane Eyre: An unloved child grows into a young woman with the inner resources to fall in love and yet resist the man she adores.

You may quarrel with my thumbnail sketches and make up your own, but I’d guess yours will be short too, although each of these works is rich with detail and wide in scope. Pride and Prejudice, for example, tells us about marriage and the relation between the sexes in the first half of the nineteenth century, and it’s a great story as well.

I suspect this over-complication causes the confusion when you introduce important characters well into a story. Let’s suppose there’s a plot against King Philip the Great, who is despotic and erratic. Five conspirators, important characters in this story, meet weekly to conspire. The reader has met them all. However, there’s Sorceress Moira who cast a spell on the king fifteen years ago to make him a tyrant. The conspirators don’t know about her, but she has to come into the story later on.

That seems hard to me. I’d want to start with the sorceress, maybe show her in a prologue (although child readers often skip prologues) or introduce a legend about her to lay the groundwork. for her appearance. The characters who don’t know about her can continue not to know, but the reader has been warned. If the reader knows and the main characters don’t, you’ve got delightful tension going, and when she finally shows up, the reader won’t be confused.

Monica Mari, I’m hoping this post got at your question. If not, please ask follow-up questions.

Here are three back story prompts:

•    Let’s take the tyrannical king situation. Not only is there a sorceress lurking, one of the conspirators, Alphonso, is concealing from the others that he was once imprisoned in the king’s dungeons and would do anything to avoid another imprisonment. Another, Gretchen, hasn’t told anyone that she and the king’s nephew are in love. Write a meeting of the plotters in which the back stories of the two are revealed to the reader but not to the other members of the cabal. Write a scene in which Gretchen confesses her secret to Alphonso. How does he use this information? Write the scene that follows.

•    Romance is a great place for secret back stories. Danny is drawn to Lana, a singer, although Danny’s mother, also a singer, deserted the family when he was six. Lena writes her own songs, which she bases on her romantic experiences. Danny may be material for her next CD. He’s heard her sing about her last boyfriend but not about the one before that and the one before that. Their first date went marvelously well. Write their second date.

•    Back stories can get very psychological. This is a memory prompt. I thought I’d written about my own example here on the blog, but I can’t find it on a search. The incident appears in an anthology called Thanks and Giving edited by Marlo Thomas, and here’s a quick summary: I was sick on my third or fourth birthday, nothing serious but I was running a high fever. My grandfather, out of pity, bought me an expensive, beautiful, not at all cuddly, hard bisque doll, very old-fashioned. My parents gave it to me along with a hundred warnings about how I’d better take wonderful care of it or I’d be a very bad girl, which caused me to instantly hate it. When I got well I destroyed it, which I felt guilty about but justified with the belief that a gift was a gift and they should have given the doll to me  without all the restrictions and then I might have treated it more respectfully. I didn’t understand what was behind my parents’ warnings until many many years later when I began to write for children and was casting about for topics. I remembered this birthday, and understanding came. My grandfather was very poor and buying this doll must have forced him to scrimp in other ways. My mother would have been touched and would have wanted me to treat his gift with reverence that equaled his generosity. My father, the orphan, probably never had a toy of his own. He would have been bowled over by the magnificence of this treasure, and he would have wanted me to appreciate my good fortune. The back story became clear decades after the event. So the prompt is to think of an incident in your own life when people acted incomprehensibly based on factors you had no knowledge of, which you still may not understand. Write it down and then fictionalize it a little or a lot. If you still don’t know the back story, invent one. Write a scene or a story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Feel free to ignore this comment, I just want to gripe to someone who will listen…

    So I showed my notebook with all my writing in it to my friend, and she looked at it, and on one story, she pointed to this part, and was like reading bits of it aloud, and laughing at it. Then she read this one scene that had popped into my head that I wrote down, and I was like, "That's this random scene I thought of." and she was like, "wow, that's REALLY random." and laughed.

    So now whenever I look at those parts, I picture her laughing at it….

  2. I definitely over-complicate, especially with descriptions and backstories. I need to work on simplifying it . . . I feel like I'm adding way too many details that I don't really need, but it's hard to pick out which ones are necessary and/or helpful and which ones are just extra. I also take up way too much space explaining things in dialogue – I have pages and pages of dialogue where some characters are explaining things to other characters. The problem is, I have complicated backstories that I love, that explain how characters ended up the way they did, and I don't want to dump any of it.

    @Clara Warford – I can't believe your friend laughed at that! That's awful. I have a notebook filled with snippets of random scenes and dialogues, so you're not alone. 🙂 They're some of my best resources, and I don't think there's anything laugh-able about it. I wasn't there, but I don't think what she did was fair at all.
    I hope that helped. 😛

  3. Hello! I came across this blog on accident yesterday, and I've spent hours reading it since! I have a question unrelated to this post, but maybe someone can offer me some advice.

    My story is set in modern times, but it has a group of major characters who have been around for a few thousand years, and English is not their first language. Though they speak English around the MC, in stressful or emotional situations they revert to their native tongue. Many of those lines of dialogue are left uninterpreted, at least for a while.
    I feel like the language needs to be included for authenticity's sake, so I was wondering: what is the best way to include another language in a story? Is it necessary to interpret every single thing they say immediately? And is it better for the author to say something like "He spoke to his companion in German," or to include the actual German dialogue?

    Thank you so much for any help! I also need to say that Ella Enchanted has been a favorite of mine for years. My copy is falling apart because I've read it so many times, and I can't wait until my daughters are old enough to read so I can share it with them, as well!

  4. I love characters who turn out to be larger than their expected roles. I had one character who was supposed to say 3 words to the main character ("You're under arrest.") Instead, he winked at her and changed the whole rest of the book. Some people have even called him their favorite character!

  5. Clara Warford–I'm with Jenna Royal. It's not fair. These were just your experiments in your notebook where you need to feel free to write whatever you like, to fool around. Sorry you had this experience.

    Caitlyn–Welcome to the blog! I'm adding your question to my list, but in the meanwhile I'd look at how Tolkien handles this in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which I don't remember. It may be helpful.

  6. @Caitlyn – your story sounds really cool! I personally prefer stories with the actual dialogue, even if it's not interpreted. It's more authentic, an it's fun besides. But that's just my opinion. 🙂

  7. Ms. Levine – I think you ought to re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy sometime! They're amazing books… really amazing and unlike everything else. And yes, they have good battle scenes, and yes, they have Elves who speak Elvish… and a quest, and hobbits, and flying monsters, and great use of words and description. And poetry. Lots of poetry.
    All in all, something worth refreshing your memory on sometime. 😉

  8. @Ms. Levine – Thank you! And thank you for the excellent advice. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond!
    @Jenna Royal – Thanks! I prefer the actual dialogue, too, but I have a thing for foreign languages. It's great to get another opinion!

  9. From the website:

    Aaaah! I'be been without internet for four days! It is so good to be back:-D

    Great post! I struggle with backstories so much, and this is definitely some helpful advice! My only question is, what if you have characters who have been there the whole story but you never found a spot to dig deeper and discover why they act the way they do? Should you just insert it somewhere anyway? Or keep the reader wondering?

    To Clara Warford, I just wanted to say that I know how you feel. Once I showed my story to my brother's English tutor and the only advice she gave me was writing, "That was random!" on the side of the page. I couldn't stand to work on the book with that ringing in my head to I just trashed that book… until over six months later when my brother pleaded with me to finish it so at least he could read it. I went back just to look at it and realized that, it really wasn't that bad! I think some people don't realize what it's like to be a writer and how much we put into it, so they don't worry about mocking us. One person I've showed my writing to in the past was jealous, I found out later, and that was why she was unhelpful. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I know exactly how you feel, but please don't give up writing! She was wrong for laughing and you need to shake off the pain. When you picture her laughing, tell her, "Stop that, you're wrong!" and move on past it. Your writing is probably lovely, and you can't let that laughing stop you!

  10. Does anybody know of any good listings of magazines or newsletters you can submit writing to? I just realized that the one I'd been planning to use was seriously expired, and I don't know of anything else. Thanks!

  11. If you're writing short sci fi or fantasy stories, I know Orson Scott Card has an online literary magazine called "Intergalactic Medicine Show." That's the only one I know of, so I'm also interested in hearing the answer!

  12. This question isn't related to the post, but I was hoping for some advice. A few months ago, I finished my first draft to my first book. (yay!) I've set it aside for a few months to look at it with fresh eyes, but I'm not sure where to begin! Every time I ask someone to read it for me and offer advice, they don't finish it. I'm just not sure how to begin the revising process. Please help!

  13. Caitlin–CONGRATULATIONS on finishing! That's a big deal! I wrote a post on revision on November 18, 2009. After you read it, if you have follow-up questions, ask, or if the post doesn't answer your question, let me know.

  14. Hi!(again)
    I just changed my email and previously I was Mysterygirl1234.
    Not completely related to this post, but hoping for help. I am writing a twisted fairy tale and I'm stuck on the point where the prince enters for the first time. I have the first sentence, but after that I'm not sure. Should I describe him now, or save it for later? Should the king ponder his son's appearance, or should the narrater? It's very confusing, and I hope someone can help.
    @Caitlin Flowers-One of my teachers used to have me pretend my writing was someone else's and read it, and then write down what I didn't like about it. Maybe this will work for you. Great job finishing your first draft! I always respect people who actually finish stuff(I never do). Hopefully you'll get your second draft done soon!

  15. This post helped me a lot. I never thought of introducing characters as if they were people I met in real life, but now that I write it here it seems so very obvious. (Things always seem simpler once you know the answer, huh?) I'll certainly keep this is in mind as I write. Thank you.

    But now a change of subject. I have a question I've been internally debating and I'll put it up here to see everyone's view on it. Before I do so, I'll explain a bit of background.

    The best stories are the ones which show more than tell. I've heard this advice many times in articles and books on how-to-write. Yet I wonder sometimes if I'm not underestimating the value of telling. I feel that telling instead of showing helps the reader get inside the reader's head more easily than a simple chronicling of events (she runs, she slides, she fidgets) ever could. As I write, I wonder if I should focus on describing the events only or if I should probe at the thoughts and inner monologues of the character (for isn't telling readers how the character feels considered less powerful then showing?) Is it okay for a character to say that they are nervous: “There is no need to be nervous—why it is so very silly really…” ? Or is it better to show the character's nervous state instead: “the old man looked away from the person's face and fiddled with the zipper of his sweater.” In other words, is it really important to be able to display what a character is thinking or should a reader get to know a character purely through actions? How do you pick when it is more advantageous to “tell” instead of “show”? Is there any value at all to telling instead of showing?

  16. @Urkedkitten – I'd say it depends on the situation. If the king and prince are familiar with each other, than it's unlikely that the king will pay much attention to his son's appearance. He might notice something little, like neatly combed brown hair or a rumpled tunic (again! When will this prince learn?). The narrator might make a few observations – it depends on the voice. I'd say it would be more natural, though, if you slip in an important detail or two, but not the whole appearance all at once. It's not as much information to disrupt the flow. That's just me, though.

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