CharactersNovel writing

Your cast of characters

From Rick:

A few weeks back an author in one of the chat groups I belong to asked the question: How soon should you introduce your main character (MC)?

The reason this author asked the question is that he apparently wasn’t planning on introducing his MC until several chapters into the novel. My immediate reaction was to say that you need to introduce MC right away, or at least in the first chapter.

But then I thought about that, I realized I was not completely correct in my initial assessment. A number of novels do not introduce MC immediately. Harry Potter, for example, is not introduced–at least not directly–until the second chapter of the first HP novel. My own first novel introduces a primary character, but not MC, in the opening chapter (which I labeled as a prologue).

In general, it’s a good idea to bring your MC into the picture in the opening pages, especially if the character is the major driving force of the novel, because you want your reader to identify with that character as soon as possible.

In some novels, MC may not be the driving force initially, but instead may be pulled along by events. This happens in a number of Dickens novels. Certainly A Christmas Carol is more about Scrooge reacting rather than acting. Nevertheless, an author needs to be aware of MC’s full role in the story’s events.

And as I’ve thought further about this issue, when that author posed the question about how soon to introduce MC, that raised a couple of warnings for me. Why did this author feel he needed to delay MC’s intro? You have to ask yourself this. Is there a compelling story reason not to introduce MC right away, and does that help or hurt the story?

I’m not saying it’s a hard rule that MC should be introduced up front, but let’s consider some possibilities of why you might not want to introduce MC right away.

(1) Let’s say you’ve set up some sort of mystery or mysterious character whose identity you don’t want to reveal–a superhero maybe–and this mystery person is really one of the people seen in the story. But you want the reader to guess and be surprised.

I’d like to clarify here that I’m talking about the MAIN CHARACTER, not a person who turns out to be hero or a novel that is about some character and where the story is being told by a narrator.

Examples of the latter: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving, the short story “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner. In the last piece, an unnamed narrator is telling the story of Emily, and the narrator is never identified. None of these examples fit the criterion of not wanting the reader to know who MC is, and in none of them is MC unknown or introduced late.

In fact, in the Irving novel, Owen Meany is not MC. The main character is John Wheelwright. It’s a novel well worth reading for its masterful literary construction as well as for its rich story in which Irving gives the reader and excellent sense of place and character, all the while building a mystery whose answer is revealed only in the last few pages. The story is not so much about Owen as the effect Owen has on John’s life.

(2) What about a story where MC turns out to be an unlikely hero, who, once revealed, will then take over the story. The author may need to bring in some other story elements first, along with a bit of mystery.

In both of these cases, withholding the introduction of MC is valid and based on the requirements of the story. But still there must be some character, preferably a primary one, who takes over the story in the beginning and who leads the reader along.

Novice authors sometimes fail to understand that it’s not good writing to throw a bunch of characters at the reader in the beginning of a story with no one being the focus. Most readers prefer to identify with one of the characters from the start, not be tossed around from head to head before things settle down.

That said, I’ve read novels that opened with a series of chapters, each about a different character, and where all of these characters were important. Yet, no single one was significantly more important than another. Still, at least one focal character was introduced later who pulled them all together. One such recent novel is Epiphany by Stuart Land. Land’s technique was to show a commonality among these initial characters, which turned out to be the main premise of the story itself. He also made sure that each character was strong and individual, characters that the reader could readily identify with and empathize with.

One risk of not introducing MC right away is that your reader may get gets confused or fail to be engaged when no clear protagonist shows up or the focus is unclear. If this reader is a prospective customer reading a sample of your novel, you could possibly lose you the sale. Worse, if the reader has already purchased this novel, you risk him not staying with it. He might become annoyed enough to write a bad review. Believe me, I have seen cases where the reader put the book down, unfinished, and wrote a scathing review. You don’t want this to happen.

Another risky decision I’ve seen is where the author introduces a character and waits to long to shows that character’s importance in the story. The reader has no idea is this is MC or not because at this stage there is no clear MC.

If you do have a good reason for not introducing MC until later, then the novel needs to be compelling up front. Don’t leave your reader in the dark and wandering around, trying to figure out who the central character is or what the story is about.

Now, this brings me to a related topic. In last week’s very short blog (because I didn’t get this one finished in time), I posted a link to a David Farland blog David Farland’s Daily Kick in the pants–Mice.

The article header says, “Many writers are taught that stories are about characters. That’s simply not true. Some stories do focus on characters, but many of the best tales don’t.”

That immediately raised my hackles, but I read on to see how he justified a statement I felt was bad general advice for writers.

Let me give a bit of my reading and writing background here. As a teen I most enjoyed stories where the characters were central and struggled with a problem to overcome–typical YA fare, even today. Much classic fiction is about the journey of the characters.
I took my first writing workshops under Hugo and Nebula winner sci-fi author, Nancy Kress. For many years she wrote a regular monthly column on writing in “Writer’s Digest” magazine. Although I no longer subscribe, the last I saw, she still did an occasional column there. She’s also published many excellent books on writing.

I remember one of her key complaints about a significant number of sci-fi novels of the past was that they too often focused on ideas and very little on characters. This was all well and good for sci-fi novels of the 60s and 70s, when they dealt a lot with adventures on alien planets, and writers’ imaginations ran rampant with all the possibilities on other worlds.

I have no objections to sci-fi short stories–or even novels–that focus on a cool idea. In point of fact, “Star Trek” did just that in its beginning. But then something happened to the show: The characters started to develop personalities as the actors worked with each other to develop them. No longer was the show strictly about cool ideas, but it began to focus on the characters more–all about the time the show was canceled. “Star Trek” persisted in the minds of its fans, and what they remembered most were the endearing characters. Indeed, when “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” came out, many fans were upset because it attempted to focus on an idea instead of the beloved characters. Fortunately, moviemakers and the writers remedied their mistake when they released “The Wrath of Khan” and subsequent movies.

So, my question for Mr. Farland, when he says “…but many of the best tales don’t” is how large a sampling he’s basing that statement on. In all fairness to him, he does cite a number of exceptions. I respect his views, although I’m not sure his counter example of The Bridges of Madison County is an apt one. That novel was very much about the characters. I suspect he didn’t much like it or he would not have made the statement he did about not remembering much of the characters or the setting. The novel’s characters were apparently important enough to place two top stars in the leading roles in the movie. If this novel had truly been one strictly about ideas or emotions, I wonder if perhaps lesser celebrities would have been cast.

Farland does, however, have a good point when he says, “Don’t get brainwashed into thinking that every character in your story must be fleshed out.” I agree. A writer should not get carried away with giving the “pieces of furniture” a background story (as I refer to those doorman and waitress-type characters). On the other hand, I believe that Farland is missing the point. Those minor characters don’t have to take over the story, but our lives are populated with passing people, some of whom we don’t know and never will know. Yet how many times do we take brief notice of these people, of their mannerisms, their appearance, even if we know we’ll never see them again?

A good novelist will minimize his or her “pieces of furniture” and populate the story with characters that the main characters can interact with. In one of her “Writer’s Digest” articles, Nancy Kress wrote about how the minor characters in a story can give the major characters someone to react to and thus give the writer a way to show the reader more about those characters.

I’ll drive my point home by saying that I agree with Farland on one thing: Not all stories are about the characters. There are indeed many great stories where the idea is central. But every good story–in my opinion–should told through the eyes of its characters, not made impersonal through with long stretches of exposition. Once you take the characters out of the story, it can become flat. Yes, there are readers who simply enjoy stories about cool ideas, but I strongly suspect that so many more enjoy such stories when the events of the story matter to the characters involved as well.

Look at H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. There’s a novel about a cool idea. Wells, very much a proponent of social Darwinism, wrote the novel with that concept in mind. Yet, at the same time, the events of the story mattered to his MC, through whose eyes the story is experienced and told. To quote Farland again, “Set a love story in Rio, or Rome, or Moscow, and it’s likely to sell well even if your protagonists ain’t all that riveting.” This may be true, but consider how much better it will probably sell if the characters are riveting. Personally, I enjoy novels more when the minor characters are more than pieces of furniture. They may have cameo appearances, but make them interesting cameos to the reader and to the other characters. We interact with minor characters on a daily basis: store clerks, people we pass on the street or see in stores, people who work in our building, people we talk to on the phone one time (or maybe more). A few of these we may get to know a bit about, but even if we don’t interact with them, we still notice many of them–what they wear, their quirks, how they seem to regard us. How many of us have talked with a customer service rep and learned something other than what we called about? Maybe we noticed an accent and that made us wonder about the person. We listen to voices, and we form opinions. Why should it be any different with those “pieces of furniture” in our novels? Such things add spice and make the story more real to us.

In a recent interview, author John Rector says: “I think emotional development is key. Readers will always have more of a connection with a story if they can relate to the characters on an emotional level. That’s the foundation of a good story. If a reader feels a connection to the characters, the intensity level is much higher than if you just walk them through a plot.”

This leaves me to wonder how much better some of those early sci-fi stories might have been had the characters been given at least equal weight with the ideas. (Write Well will also be doing an interview with John Rector in an upcoming post.)

Although I understand Farland’s points, I’m not convinced that his advice on reducing the importance of characters in some stories is necessarily the best. Based on this, I want to caution all authors, new ones in particular. Writing styles and reader tastes change over time. What worked thirty or forty years ago, might not work with today’s readers. The writing styles and rules of some of the classics–great in their time–simply wouldn’t work today, and writing styles today might not work well twenty years from now. Don’t get caught up in “well, such and such won this and that award and it’s a classic.” That might be true, but if some of those classics were written today, they might never have been published, and even if self-published, they might fail miserably.

Take risks and break new ground in your writing. Be careful of treading old ground and thinking that you’ll see succeed by copying what worked in the past or for other writers.


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