Making the Introductions

Eliza left a comment on my last post concerning introducing characters and groups into a story. She goes into some more details here, highlighting the ways in which an author can bring new characters into a plot without necessarily altering the reader’s expectations regarding the importance or role of the new arrivals. It’s an interesting subject and one that I realised I hadn’t really thought about consciously before. After a few days contemplation, here’s what I’ve come up with.

Why Am I Here?

The first thing to be considered is whether you actually know what the group of characters are going to do. This may sound strange at first, surely an author doesn’t randomly introduce people into a story without knowing why. Well, actually I’ve found that I do. Sometimes during the course of writing a scene the story requires a character (or several) who have played no part before that point. It might be the infamous ‘red shirts’ acting as escort, police officers discovering the crime scene, teachers or classmates or any number of other plot-required persons. Their appearance is derived from the need to introduce another element into the story not satisfied by the existing characters.

On many occasions this character or group will perform their allotted role, take their bows and never darken your page again. All fine so far, but the point raised by Eliza is whether you want your reader to know that. As I mentioned in the previous post, blurring between characters, plot and setting gives a more-rounded story. If the reader can immediately pigeon-hole a character or group as simply a function of plot, they are likely to dismiss them.

On the other hand, if they are genuinely nothing more than plot devices you don’t want to invest too many words in their part, or for that matter have the reader invest too much interest in them, detracting from the main characters. If anything, over-involvement with inconsequential characters can cause disappointment because as a writer you run the risk of their part starting to look like a sub-plot but leading nowhere, making the reader feel like there’s an issue remaining unresolved. If you add a bit of colour to your two beat cops finding the body, having them bickering about the new desk sergeant, there’s always the danger that your reader wants to find out more about the desk sergeant than the body!

Bearing that in mind, sometimes you don’t have to know straight away how involved the new arrivals will be with the story. It can sometimes happen that a character or group with distinctly walk-on origins can be revisited later, and perhaps even turned into a minor or secondary character. This has certainly happened to me whilst writing Malekith and Shadow King. Characters, groups and even places can be returned to briefly later on when the time is appropriate.

A good example is the raven herald Elthyrior in Malekith. He’s little more than a name, a bit-part in that novel, but in Shadow King he’s quite an important character. His role in Shadow King could have been fulfilled by a new character created for that purpose, but his reappearance and renewed prominence changes the readers’ expectations. Due to the way the trilogy is structured, with overlapping narratives creating a full picture of events across the three novels, the reader that pays attention is rewarded later on. Can they afford to dismiss any of the characters they encounter, knowing that some of them may be more than what they seem at first glance?

This principle has been extended by design throughout the Time of Legends series, so that certain things and people recur throughout the books in some form or the other. Like Easter eggs on a DVD, readers of the different novels get a sense of reward and familiarity when they recognise that such-and-such was a lowly throne room spear bearer in Book A, while in Book D they learn that that character is now the captain of the castle guard.

This continuity of setting is important for a couple of reasons. The first is the reward for attentive readers I’ve just mentioned. Then there is the matter of verisimilitude. If the reader feels that the entire world exists purely for the benefit of the characters and plot, it is disregarded. If, on the other hand, the world continues to turn and there are events not directly related to the actions of the characters changing the setting, there is an added depth.  The promotion from spear bearer to guard captain is of no direct importance whatsoever (or perhaps it is!) but the fact that it happened demonstrates that the world you have created has an existence of its own beyond the requirements of the plot you are relating. Just like the real world, such things show that around your characters there’s a cast of hundreds, thousands, even millions who are getting on with life with their own trials and victories, enriching the setting.

Context

Which is all well and good, but how do you keep the expectations of the readers uncertain? The best way I have found is to employ a consistent inconsistency… Confused? As I always say about writing, be conscious of the decisions you make, as there is nothing random and so not wholly inconsistent. However, if every character is introduced the same way, and every character then makes a reappearance or not, you are creating predictability. Predictability confirms expectation and so stifles excitement and involvement.

So, far from worrying about how to introduce groups as a general rule, one must consider every introduction on its own merits, and be deliberately inconsistent about it. Some characters get introduced by name, seem to be important but are not. Others have the broadest brush introduction possible, but then come to be a major element of the story.

The other factor to bear in mind is the needs of the narrative – it’s pacing and structure. Try as you might, there’s probably no good way to introduce a new group in any amount of detail in the middle of something important . If it’s an action scene, for instance, you don’t want to distract from the action by suddenly disappearing down a sidestreet talking about the new bunch of mercenaries that have turned up to save the day. Their immediate entrance to the story should be fitting to the circumstance of the scene. If need be, more lengthier introductions can be made later.

The other defining constraint on the introduction is the viewpoint and narrative style being used. In a narrow viewpoint story, where everything being related to the reader comes through the main viewpoint character, the author is simply not in a position to make wider introductions unless the viewing character already has that information. If they are old associates, then by all means talk about the character’s history with them, give them names and so on. If the arrivals are strangers to the character they will be strangers to the reader and only the information they offer about themselves to your characters will become known.

If the style of the story is more omniscient in scope the narrator has greater leeway for imparting additional information direct to the reader, often details that the characters are unaware of. In this sort of story the extra latitude can be both a boon and a curse. If used well it can add depth to the setting, create tension in the plot by having the reader better informed than the characters and also introduce vital information that otherwise could not be brought to light.

On the flip side, overuse of this device invites exposition, cluttering the story with excessive insights into characters of no importance, essays on the setting that add nothing to the narrative and general bumpf that gets in the way of the reader’s experience. On a practical level, 500 words spent describing the inner politics of the brigand gang might be better spent elsewhere.

As an author you make choices about where your reader directs his or her attention and attachment at any given time. The more the reader knows about a character, the more involved he or she will be, for good or ill. Sometimes it’s worthwhile having the reader invest a little bit of emotional stake in a minor character or group, particularly if you know bad things are going to happen. At other times, you really don’t want the reader giving a hoot about anybody other than the main characters. Despite everything else, this is their story after all, not the tale of the fan waver who’s worried that his wife is having an affair or the bus driver who has gambling problems…

In this regard I apply the same principles to these newcomers that I would to a main character – a slowly building picture of who they are works better than an info-dump intro. You’ll find that if you give the reader enough to form a rough opinion you’ve started with the right amount of information. Should the group’s importance grow in the story (by design or otherwise) their continued involvement – their words and deeds – will flesh out the initial impressions in a natural way. If their involvement is to end, the information will also stop as the story progresses, hopefully leaving the reader knowing what they need to know but nothing more.

Who Said What Now?

Dialogue is the biggest sticking point when introducing strangers. If the reader doesn’t have names to attach to characters the writing can become confused or, worse, suffer from the worst kind of Burly Detective Syndrome. In this case it is sometimes worth using a regular epithet instead of a real name. Just as ‘John said’ becomes invisible on the page so too does ‘the stranger said’ if you use it consistently. Like a name the attached title needs to be simple and unobtrusive, so avoid ‘the bearded man with the eye patch said’ and keep it short!

In the first few lines of dialogue, you can use this to your advantage. By using a line of dialogue to highlight the character, you can use this as an excuse to drop in another titbit of information about them, the dialogue breaking up the description into discreet packages:

“What are you doing here?” asked the burly corporal, puffing up his chest and hooking his thumbs into the belt around his ample paunch. His four squad members slouched close by, smoking and chatting, paying little attention to their leader.

“We were just looking for the main hangar,” said Michael, casting an uncertain glance over his shoulder towards the main compound.

“Hangar’s off limits to civvies,” the corporal told them. His shirt was crumpled and perspiration stained, and clearly he had been standing out in the sun for most of the day. The stench of stale sweat emanating from him was enough to force Michael to suppress a grimace.

“I have a pass here somewhere, from Colonel Grey,” Michael replied, fishing the laminated badge from his pocket and thrusting it towards the jobsworth standing in front of the door. The corporal peered at it for the briefest of moments, immediately recognising Grey’s signature at the bottom. He shifted uneasily , trying to straighten up in case the visitors were important while his shoulders slumped in disappointment. Fear of superiors won the battle and he came to attention, his hand rising in a sharp salute.

“Corporal Mannings, sir!” he barked, eyes directed respectfully over Michael’s shoulder. The other soldiers shuffled to attention with less vigour, looking curiously at Michael and Serena.

“Thank you, corporal,” Michael said, returning the forged pass to his pocket. “If you would direct us to Dr Pearson’s offices, I would be most grateful.”

The reader already knows enough about Corporal Mannings to start making a judgement on him, but his introduction has been done in such a way that if he never appears again the reader won’t miss him. We’ve even been cunning enough to get his name mentioned.

Similarly, his somewhat lacklustre squad have been introduced as a group. Think of them as a single entity initially until individuals from the group come to the fore. This is where I think ‘show not tell’ comes into its own. Rather than simply saying that the door was guarded by Corporal Mannings, a notorious jobsworth and bootlicker who was easily fooled by Michael’s fake pass, we have turned it into a short scene.

A group can act surly or excited, be talkative or silent, or do any of the other things a single character might do. If the group eye the characters with resentment, it might be the one that looks most welcoming that attracts the attention, hinting at a possible deeper involvement. The two that are sniggering to themselves at the back, or the concubine who looks at the hero with disinterest while the others leer appreciatively are all signalled as being different from the group and therefore containing the potential for closer examination.

Turning the tables

Having created certain expectations through the introduction of your character(s) it’s important to return to that inconsistency I mentioned earlier. It might be that our hero ends up talking to another concubine and the one that didn’t fancy him is actually of no consequence at all, her reaction simply an affirmation that not all concubines are the same. Important character(s) can emerge from the group rather than being placed front and centre from the outset, keeping our reader on their toes in all subsequent encounters.

To follow the earlier example, it may be that the writer allows the reader enough time to forget about jobsworth Corporal Mannings. When he is reintroduced later on, at a point where his presence will be a potential obstacle for our characters, the reader (and characters) will go back to that first impression and expect opposition. Imagine their surprise to learn that Corporal Mannings is actually an affable chap who was simply tired and bored after a long day stood on watch. Having been apprised of our characters’ situation he is more than willing to help out and changes from being an obstacle to an aid.

Alternatively, Mannings might be every bit the jobsworth he’s been made out to be, but the real power in the squad is one of the other soldiers who comes to the fore in the second encounter, speaking on behalf of the characters. He might end up being a secondary character from then on, splitting from the group and becoming an individual. Alternatively, each time Corporal Mannings and his squad appears the reader is not sure what they’ll do, or even if they’ll turn up again. The group, like a character, has developed a dynamic that can be used.

Conclusion

So if I was to summarise that long ramble into some concrete advice…

When the group is introduced, have an idea of what their role is but keep it to yourself until it becomes self-evident to the reader.

Think of encounters you have in real life. Some are ships passing in the night, others have more meaning. However, the circumstances of those initial encounters don’t follow any defined form, and neither should those in your stories. Great friendships might spark over time from humble beginnings, while folks who have an instant rapport may well never see each other again.

Until specific characters are identified, think of the group as a single character. The people that make up the group are like the facets of a character. Just as you would not provide a lengthy biography of a character on first appearance, it is not necessary to divulge everything about a group.

Keep the readers guessing. Invent a new group or character for the hell of it, and toss them away without regard, even if you have spent a little bit of time introducing them.

If people are going to die, some of them should have names and some not!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey, I like the stuff on the site. Don’t stop writing! But also, I’ve been looking for a copy of your short story “The Torturer’s Tale”, but I can’t find it anywhere on the net, not even on the Games Workshop website. Do you know where I can find a copy?

    Gav – WD241 (not sure if that’s UK or US number). There’s a comprehensive searchable index here:
    http://www.gamehobby.net/

    Like

  2. Thank you for answering my question! Your advice is very helpful, and much appreciated. 😀

    Like

  3. […] secondary characters that really addressed some of the problems I was having. You can find it here, and I think it’s well worth a […]

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  4. Dude, super helpful.
    I’ve often scoffed at the explosion of blogs, disbelieving that people would actually bother searching through terabytes of garbage to read the opinions of some random person.
    This sir is no garbage.
    Thanks for the help.

    Like


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