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How to Introduce Characters Without Overwhelming Readers
If you’ve been pursuing writing for any amount of time, you’ve probably come across those little charts that help you list every personality quirk known to man about your characters. What’s their favorite color? Their favorite food? When was their last BM and do they have problems with this?
Oh wait, no, that’s a nursing questionnaire. Sometimes I get my careers mixed up.
Point being, these little charts are ubiquitous to writing blogs and can be helpful when coming up with character basics. These tools, however, don’t help you introduce your characters to your readers. In fact, the majority of the things listed on the questionnaire are completely insignificant to the story that you are trying to tell. And yet time and time again, I’ve seen writers trying to dump this information into their stories, and all it does is muddy the water for your readers.
I liken the experience to those word math problems back in school. In the older grades, the test creators would add superfluous information to the scenario to see if students could differentiate between relevant and irrelevant data. But you’re not trying to test the IQ of your readers. You’re supposed to be taking them on an entertaining journey through this world you’ve created. Differentiating relevant vs. irrelevant data is YOUR job.
But I worked so hard on this questionnaire! Now, I love my characters and want my readers to love them just as I do. Won’t they care about their favorite type of ice cream?
No. They won’t.
If it has NOTHING to do with the plot, I assure you of this, they will not care.
People can only take in a certain amount of data before their eyes roll back into their heads, exposing the words ‘Memory Full’ written in the whites. And the perfect way to create this scenario is to bore them with facts. While knowing superfluous information about your characters can be helpful for the author, it should not be neglected for the core things.
Who is your main character seems like a basic question, but when you have a cast of twenty people, it can be hard to say. Sometimes X is running the show and at other times Y takes the lead. But who, at the core of your story, is the main person? Who owns the story arc? Who’s making that hero’s journey as it were? If you don’t know, then how will your readers know?
Start there, then build your characters around that pillar. If it helps, remove the character’s names. Reduce these people down to their titles: main character (MC), MC’s best friend, MC’s rival, MC’s brother. Then use those anchoring features to introduce them to your readers from the perspective of the MC.
It’s okay to tell your readers who these folks are too. In fact, I urge you, especially as a beginner, to do so. This is not always one of those ‘showing is better than telling’ sort of things. Sure, do that later when you try to describe the quality of the relationship, but when you’re grounding your reader into your story, just throwing out a fact is completely fine. The reader is already going to be lining up the cast in relation to the MC anyway, all you’ve done is assisted them in doing so. Now, each time X shows up, the reader will be going ‘oh right, the best friend.’ Labeling helps people categorize and keep track, which is essential at the beginning of a relationship.
Another benefit to this statement of facts is the shorthand that comes with it. A best friend is trusted, loved, a confidant, etc. A rival is none of those things and often despised. With that position alone you have helped the reader know what to expect from your characters without listing out every detail of his life.
You can continue with locations as well. When you introduce a new setting, make it personal to your MC. MC’s hometown/planet, MC’s bedroom, MC’s college dorm room, MC’s spaceship. Again, you are signaling with shorthand something to your reader, a feeling perhaps. Nostalgia? Familiarity? Remorse? This feeling, of course, will vary according to your character and their backstory.
Instead of starting from scratch with your descriptions, you can use these preconceptions as a foundation from which to build. Then, after you have these basics established, start to add the little details – not in excess, but slowly, as the story progresses. If ice cream comes up naturally in the flow of the story, then here’s your chance to put that bit of information out there! But don’t just fill your pages with trivia. It will do nothing but distract from what your readers MUST know. Reading is supposed to be fun. Don’t make your audience work for it.
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RW Hague is a registered nurse with over eight years of experience within the medical field. Using her medical expertise, she writes stories that are gritty and compelling.