Answering Your Writing Questions: Introducing Characters

This is the third post in an ongoing series of answering readers' questions.  It's not to late to ask something! Just go back to the original post and leave your question in the comments.

Today's question comes from my wonderful Loft student Karen Phillips:

If an important character doesn't come in until later in story, do you need to introduce it (this character is a dog) somewhere in the first or second chapter? I read in Stephen King's On Writing that you should introduce them early on, but would love to hear your thoughts. I'm struggling with this because of the chronological issues.

The crux of this issue is playing fair with the reader.  You don't want to throw a new character at them at the end, leaving your reader trying to figure out where this new person came from.  That's cheating.  We have an expectation that all the players in the drama will be placed onstage early on, so we can get familiar with them and their stories.  Bringing a character on at the end robs us of the chance to get to know them. 

In a mystery, it is considered fair game–and good writing–to introduce all the suspects as early as possible.  It's a major cheat to bring the perpetrator of the crime in at the end and if you do that, you'll have readers throwing the book across the room.

There's a psychological thing that readers go through wherein whatever character they read about on the page first is the one they will assume is the main character.  It is essential to orient your reader with the main character from the very beginning.  This is why it is so dizzying to read a novel that doesn't begin with the main character's viewpoint–you're thrown off your story orientation from the very start.

So all that being said, how do you get a character in early on if the dictates or chronology of the story won't allow it?  Sometimes just a mention is enough.   Have a character mention the one in question.  As an example, in the novel I'm currently working on, the protagonist has an ex-husband.  When I began writing the novel, the ex didn't exist as I didn't know she'd been married before.  Then I realized she was on her second marriage and the ex came through as a fleeting thought in her mind.  Then he became more important and came through as another character mentioning him.  Then he became even more important and now warrants an actual phone conversation.  So there are degrees of importance and you can allot novel space accordingly.

In the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,which I highly recommend, there's a character who doesn't come in until three-quarters through.  He's important to one of the main characters, but he is basically a sub-plot of the main story.  (The way the movie is structured, each of the main characters has a story, and all of these sub-plots make up the main story.  Am I making sense?)  The way he is shown early on is in a brief glimpse of an old photo.  The viewer gets a whiff of something, they aren't sure what but the film makers have played fair in letting us in on the story.

In the case of a character that's a dog, I'd ask if it is truly a main character or perhaps more of a catalyst?  I'm not sure, but one way you might be able to get around it is to have the character who gets the dog think of or mention the desire for a dog early on.  Then it is set up.  In novel writing, it is all about setting things up.

Please comment. I'd love to hear everyone's take on this.  How and when do you introduce characters?

Also, I'm excited to announce a new class on Authenticity and Creativity.  It's a one-session telecall that I'm co-hosting with Karen Caterson and we've just opened registration.  Check out our page for more information and consider joining us!

8 Responses to Answering Your Writing Questions: Introducing Characters

  1. Karen Phillips 06/23/2012 at 13:43 #

    Charlotte, you just confirmed what I feel I need to do in my second draft, bring at least his breed in the first or second chapters. Thank you for answering this question. It’s something I’ve had on my mind for a a couple of weeks now.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 06/23/2012 at 15:29 #

    Yes, that's a good idea, too, since the dog has such a specific breed, you could have someone reading an article about it or talking about it. Glad this was helpful.

  3. Debbie Maxwell Allen 06/24/2012 at 21:43 #

    I usually use a conversation or an encounter of some kind.


  4. J.D. 06/25/2012 at 05:46 #

    I like your answer, Charlotte. Have someone mention the character. Place him or her in a photograph. Anything to get the person–or the dog–in the mix. I always hate feeling the need for another character after I am deep into the writing. These are the situations that make me say, “@#$%^$#, why didn’t I write an outline!” Of course, now I do. A mystery writer I admire, T. Jefferson Parker, begins his books with a 30,000 word outline. He polishes that outline, gets all the workings of the story in place, before rewriting it into a novel. That is how my next effort will begin.
    Great stuff, Charlotte.

  5. Connie B. Dowell 06/25/2012 at 05:57 #

    I’ve been working with this in my latest draft. I had a character that came into play a little later, and while I knew I shouldn’t bring him in any earlier, I needed to foreshadow his appearance in some way.

  6. Charlotte Dixon 06/25/2012 at 06:56 #

    Always good ways to get new characters in.

  7. Charlotte Dixon 06/25/2012 at 07:03 #

    Wow, 30,000 words, that's like a rough draft almost.  I think there's a writing book out called "Rough Draft in 30 Days" (that might not be the exact title) and the "rough draft" of the title is actually more like a very detailed outline.  Reminds me of what you say Jefferson Parker does.  Very interesting.  Can't wait to hear how it is for you to write the next book after doing an outline.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 06/25/2012 at 07:05 #

    I think that's the takeaway from all this–the need to find a way to foreshadow the character in some small way.  Foreshadow is probably a word I should have used in the post, but as usual, I got carried away.  :-)

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