Lost in the Proceedings

When you create a character who will have a significant impact in your novel, one of the first considerations is when he should be introduced. Most authors give such a character an early start, mainly because he is needed to helm his associated plot line. Setting up your major players early also means we have time to get to know them during the course of the book. The longer the character arc, the more involved the reader becomes.

What happens, however, if you have a key character who by structural necessity cannot appear in the early going? This could happen, for instance, if she is a doctor in a remote village that others realize they must visit. That character runs the risk of being treated as an also-ran. After all, the author didn’t bother to introduce her until page 200, so why should the reader bother being interested in her?

In this case, proper positioning is vital. The biggest disservice a writer can do to this johnny-come-lately is to bury him within a scene populated by characters the reader already knows well. By this point we have likely settled on our favorites, who can easily elbow aside a new character. Often he gets lost among the multitude, and by the time I realize he is supposed to be important, I’m having a difficult time trying to remember how he fits within the web of the novel. Maybe the readers of your novel are more perspicacious, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The best way to point up a latecomer is introducing her at the start of a chapter. That placement is an announcement of sorts. We’re fresh off a chapter break, and some new person is leading a scene’s charge. She’s receiving quite a lot of attention . . . and now she’s linking up with a character I know pretty well . . . hey, I guess I should pay attention to her too.

Following up a strong beginning, you can have that character start off a few more chapters shortly afterward. The more he associates with players we know are important, the better he will recover from his late start. Over the course of the next 100 pages, that character can gradually assume his rightful stature.

Exercise: You can’t force love. Just because you know the character will be important later doesn’t mean the reader has the same assumption. Treat the new character first as an appendage off a main character. Use her association with that known quantity to get the reader interested in her—because we’re interested in any character who interacts with the people we’ve grown to know. Then the friend of our friend can become something more.

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”
—Flannery O’Conner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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