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Introducing characters

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by ApaCisare, Feb 22, 2018.

  1. ApaCisare

    ApaCisare Scribe

    So, I'm just over half-way through the first draft of a children's story I began writing around two or so months ago and have just finished introducing a new supporting character.
    Everything was going great; I had the whole scene played out in my head, lines of snappy dialogue that sounded great to my ears...
    There's just one problem--the introduction kina fell flat.
    Now, I know I will revisit this scene when I complete the first draft and start revising the whole work, but my initial disappointment with this scene got me thinking, what are some of the fundamental aspects of introducing a character?
    This work is my first real attempt at completing a piece of writing longer than 3,000 words, and as such I'm still very much a beginner with a lot of this stuff. What difficulties have you had with introducing characters?
  2. I'm kind of a discovery writer, so sometimes, I don't have a clear image of the character i'm creating until they've been in the story for many chapters. So, they can spend a couple chapters as totally different people than they are for most of the book once I have a feel for who they are. That later has to be fixed, in revising.

    Another thing I've found is that scenes I plan extensively in my head inevitably seem to fall flat to me. Nothing looks as good on paper. It's unavoidable.
    Night Gardener and ApaCisare like this.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I try to sketch a few things out for a character--male or female, human or non-human, a general idea of age, social status or trade, maybe a few physical details. It can be hazy, even for a main character. I try to have a name, mainly because I don't get very far in actual writing without one.

    But that's character planning, not character introduction. There I try to have the character--secondary characters included--doing something that reveals at least some aspect of their character. This one is polite, that one is clever, another is loud. I may not settle on keeping that characteristic--it's sort of like trying on clothes. I can look at what's on the rack, but I don't really know until I've worn it around for a while. The character evolves as I write and I often have to deal with some continuity issues during editing. But I don't really know the character until I've run them around, which means how they get introduced may change.

    I do not try to tell the reader a full description upon first introduction. Just a bit here and there. I can add details further into the initial chapters. For example, I may not mention eye color until someone else says something about it. Or a characteristic tic doesn't appear until the character is nervous or bored or angry. There's no reason to mention size and build, for example, until that information becomes relevant to the narrative. And so on.
    ApaCisare likes this.
  4. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    I had some positive comments from a beta reader or two regarding my first description/introduction of some of the characters, so I'll try to describe what I did.

    I tried to blend several elements together at the same time. For physical description, I chose only the most distinguishing features to mention and didn't say much about the more mundane aspects, only enough to cover basics (like the items Skip mentioned). I brought up the one or two personality features that are most prevalent in the character, in some cases linking them to a physical attribute. But--all this info was filtered through the POV character, hopefully in a way that characterized that character as well, by including his opinions and the kinds of things he notices.

    The more you work with the characters, the better this stuff will turn out. Revision and editing are your friends--you get another crack at it, and another, and another...
    Lisselle, skip.knox and ApaCisare like this.
  5. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

    You could try retro-engineering. Think about how you want your MC to react to a new character: Emotionally? Physically? Etc. Then ask if that introduction can serve the furtherance of plot and character development. Then, get to the mechanics (setting) and descriptions (inference, impressions, physical traits) to serve that purpose. We usually don't get more than a first impression for very short interactions IRL, but you can have your character notice traits or physical things in contexts that make sense to notice them. Gradual reveal at natural pacing feels... well.. natural to read.

    I'll try to write out what I'm talking about.

    MC: is a no-nonsense, skeptical, studious person.
    New Character /NC: is a mostly good hearted but mischeivious prankster.

    How should they (these strangers) meet? Where is the setting going to work best? What is the nature of their meeting? (By chance? Planned? Under strained circumstances? etc.) When do they need to meet for your plot to work and evolve? Can the set/environment help tell (infer or deduce) information about the NC to the reader? Meeting a child in a dangerous biker bar would be a different expectation for the reader than meeting them on a playground, etc.

    Let's try this scenario:
    MC is in a library, sitting behind a tall pile of books at a huge table. MC thinks he is alone in this area; Very busy reading, taking notes. Sets current book aside, and grabs the next book from the pile. The book has been switched with a totally different book! It's a... collection of fairy tales. ( a clue?) Confused, MC sets wrong book aside and looks around. No body is there. MC goes to grab his pen (left or right handed?), and it's been replaced with a stuffed squeaky toy. Startled by grabbing the squeaky toy, MC shrieks like a scalding tea kettle. MC calms down, scanning the library behind him. Nobody is near him, but they heard him shriek so they're desperately suppressing their amusement. Flustered, MC tries to get back to work but when he turns around the books are stacked like a house of cards. Angry, the MC gets out of his chair to repile his books and scours the stacks, trying to find the culprit. He realizes that the only place the prankster could be hiding is under the huge table. He gets down to look under the table, fully intending to seize them, but when he looks it's empty except for chair legs. In that instant, something small (first physical description) kicks him in the butt, propelling him to bump his head on the table and fall over to his side. He sees the NC from his skewed face-planted in the carpet angle running away while emmitting riotus, squealing laughter down the book stacks. (Describe the NC backside: physical build and clothing, and size of NC compared to objects to imply age). The MC gets up and notices that his special pen was back on his chair seat, so at least the brat (impression) didn't steal it (implies good natured). He sits back down to his book stacks and notes, trying to get back to work. Suddenly, the piles part and he's met with the very face of his prankster thundering "BOO!" and is startled again.
    (Now, what should be the MC's overall impressions of this face? What is the MC projecting onto the NC based on the pranking? Give the reader some physical ID markers (factual, like describing for a police sketch artist) and the MC's interpretation of said features. Eyes wet with tears from laughter? Blushed cheeks from running around? Wide eyes? Smiles? Infectious Giggling? Messy hair dusted with cobwebs from crawling around under furniture? )

    Now, what will the MC say to the NC? That too serves purposes. But, you've created an organic way through the minutia of fleeting impressions to notice and describe the NC through the MCs perspective. Now, Don't over think it. Give yourself more than one chance to 'notice' and absorb a NC.

    This above passage creates a setting, context, first impressions and interactions. You can tinker with back room engine mechanics with different settings and interactions, but the approach is to not give yourself as a writer a reason to info-dump all at once. We all get first impressions, and then more detailed interactions with others. There's exception to every rule, but this method seems to work consistently well.
    Incanus, ApaCisare and Ruru like this.
  6. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

    Also, don't forget that introductions and impressions can be made through other senses than just sight / visual contact alone, and can really add depth to your narrative. And, again, it feels rather organic to the reader because often that's what happens IRL.

    Maybe you can't see (or didn't first notice) a person walking past you on your commute through the street market, but you notice their enchanting perfume that reminds you of someone or something else. Or, perhaps a character is introduced before they are seen because it smells like it never bathed or spent all day mucking up the stalls of sick livestock.

    Maybe you're in a crowded tavern and one person's laugh cuts through the din and you really notice it. Maybe, you're alone in a rented tavern room for the night, but can hear footsteps approaching; it sounds like a distinct limp rattling in heavy shackles. Etc.

    Maybe your a wealthy merchant, and are really impressed by the sewing skills and feeling of a custom garment, and want to meet the person responsible for such refined workmanship.

    Non-physical or Distant Contact
    Or, maybe you're a student and wrote graffiti on a desk, and to your surprise someone has replied to your graffitti, but you have no idea who it is. All you can do is keep exchanging cryptic messages to one another, hoping to meet but not get caught by the teachers for defacing school property.

    Maybe you bought a painting that so moves you, you're desperate to meet the artist.

    Maybe you work a miserable factory job or are serving a prison sentence, and you can hear someone happily whistling throughout their day somewhere in the facility and think, 'who could possibly be having a good time here?'.

    All are mostly indirect, non-visual forms of introducing a character to the MC and reader that are engaging and intriguing, yet avoid the police-sketch artist descriptions and info-dumping.

    You can then use physical descriptions to infer other characteristics: let's say a character has a really crooked smile - teeth like a jack o lantern- and never tries to hide their teeth when she laughs and always has a smile on her face, even if her teeth can sometimes scare small children. What personality traits can we infer or deduce based on those observations?

    Introductions are great opportunities, and can be mundane to the extraordinary to the MC/reader, and still feel natural and 'unscripted' while adding a lot of interest to the narrative.
    Hope this helps :)
    ApaCisare and skip.knox like this.
  7. ApaCisare

    ApaCisare Scribe

    Thank you for your helpful responses, everyone! I feel much better equipped for tackling that character introduction once I get around to rewriting the scene. :):):)

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