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!