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!

Pleased to meet you

On April 6, 2011, Wendy wrote, …I’m trying to write a story that has a lot of characters, and they all have an important part in the story. But I’m not sure if I need to show my main character meeting them all, or if she should just know them when the story begins. How should I introduce everyone? How specific do I need to be, and how much should I assume on the part of the reader? Would it be confusing for me to throw characters in there without an introduction? How soon should I show character developing scenes for them?

I discussed a similar question about a year ago, in my post of June 23rd, 2010, so you may want to look at that.

Novels, especially ones with an old-fashioned tone, occasionally begin with a list of characters and brief character descriptions, just as you see when you read a play. This device is sometimes used when there are many characters. Might go something like this:

Abigail – Twenty-something, ramrod-straight posture, perfect diction, wholehearted about everything she undertakes, first in a long line of seamstresses to complete her college education, assistant to the comptroller of a manufacturer of sports socks.

Bartholomew – Fourteen, narrow face, narrow shoulders, small for his age but no one dares tease him because he’s master of the secret revenge, ninth grader studying masters-level physics. Son of Abigail’s boss.

Christopher – sentient lizard, three inches long, brown-and-green scales, Abigail’s pet although she is unaware of his special powers.

And so on, offering the information that you, the author, want the reader to know.

The advantage is that you don’t have to introduce the characters inside the story. They can just walk on when their turn comes, again as in a play, and the reader can thumb back to the beginning to find out who’s made an entrance. Of course, as the story progresses, the characters won’t remain static. The author still has to develop them, and the thumbnails don’t cover very much.

The disadvantage is that the reader has to thumb back and forth until he gets to know the characters. Some don’t mind this; I’m not fond of it. On the other hand, an e-reader, which I have no experience with, may make this jumping around a snap.

Since there are no laws of story writing, you can develop your own form. You might give each major character her own scene at the beginning so she’s fixed in the reader’s mind. Naturally, the scenes have to be interesting, and it will help if they connect with the events that follow. Then you can launch the body of the story in whatever POV you like.

But if you prefer standard storytelling, I’d say variety is the key. You can have your main meet one or two of the characters for the first time. The others she may already know.

What I would avoid is a blitz of new characters. If your main, Toni, goes to a party and meets the twelve significant characters all at once, the reader is likely to be overloaded no matter how clever you are at setting them apart. Suppose you arrange it as a memory game. Toni may even see it this way. She’s trying to remember the people along with the reader, so she’s thinking, I met Ken and Karen in the kitchen. Look at that! Two K’s in  the kitchen, which starts with a k. Ken was washing dishes and whistling, Clean Ken. Karen dropped the bag of potato chips. Klutzy Karen. Toni stays with them for a while and gets a deeper impression of each, which she passes along to the reader.

A little later, while she waits in the hallway to get into the bathroom, she chats with Beryl. Look at that, Beryl and bathroom, more alliteration! Beryl reveals secrets about the host that she shouldn’t. Toni and the reader are put off by her lack of discretion.

You tour Toni from room to room through the party, introducing characters. You’ve done a great job. When the chapter ends, the reader has a fix on everybody.

The problem is that if Karen doesn’t show up again until four more chapters go by, your reader may recognize her name and may remember that she’s Klutzy Karen, but little else. Your hard work in the first chapter was wasted.

Of course, some characters are memorable whenever they appear. The reader is likely to remember Christopher, the sentient lizard, even if fifty pages go by between appearances – unless your other characters include five other thinking animals. A potential love interest is likely to stand out and be remembered, likewise a character who threatens the safety of your main.

The advantage of a first-time meeting is that you don’t need an excuse to describe the new character. Toni will be paying particular attention to someone unfamiliar. She’ll notice Abigail’s erect posture and perfect speech. However, if she’s known Abigail for three years, you’ll have a harder time revealing these traits. You’ll need a hook. You can have Bartholomew comment on Abigail’s characteristics, if he’s likely to. You can have Abigail herself say something about them, for example, if someone made fun of her, she can tell her pal Toni about the ridicule. Or you can have the traits become temporarily prominent in Toni’s mind, as in, Abigail was freaked. She always talked like every word was worth ten dollars, but today each one was a museum piece. I wanted to hug her, but she was standing so straight and sharp I thought I might cut myself.

If you bring characters in only as they’re needed, the new entries will be fresh when they appear. Some may be necessary only for a scene or two, and you don’t have to burden the reader with remembering them from an earlier point in the story.

In the comments that followed my recent post called “Foggy First Page” I was surprised at how many people are untroubled by ambiguity, so I wouldn’t worry much about starting new characters in the middle of your story. A common writer’s maxim is: Trust the reader. If Bartholomew barges into Abigail’s work cubicle ranting about Chaos Theory, the reader will probably be willing to wait to understand him and his role in the story.

As for character-developing scenes, I suggest you reveal your other characters’ development only in relation to your main. If Bartholomew is your main, for example, and Abigail an important secondary, she will be fleshed out as needed in relation to Bartholomew. If Abigail’s emotional growth isn’t important to him, it doesn’t matter how her character evolves. You don’t want to distract the reader from the thrust of your tale.

A few prompts:

•    Christopher the lizard is the main character in a love story between him and – you pick, another lizard or anybody else, a different animal, an extra-terrestrial, a human, an elf. Abigail and Bartholomew are important secondary characters. Write the story.

•    Write a cast-of-characters list along with short descriptions of each one. Start a story in which you rely on your list and bring on your characters as if the reader has always known them.

•    Make a cast-of-characters list for a story you’re already working on. Rewrite your first three chapters (or as much as you like) relying on the list and not repeating any of the information. Then drop the list and descriptions and put back in only what you need to help the reader identify these characters. Do you find that you have to return your story to its original state, or have you been able to leave some material out? Is your revision leaner?

•    Write the party scene I started above. Have Toni meet lots of people and make as many as possible memorable. This may be a lively party, with arguments, food fights, vigorous dancing, whatever.

•    Toni is twelve years old. She’s just been taken to her new foster home. It’s dinnertime, and she’s meeting the characters in her new, large family. Write the scene and as much that follows as you like.

Have fun and save what you write!