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!