Friday, January 14, 2011

Pleased to meet you, ma’am.

When a character first makes an appearance in a story, the writer really ought to call upon good manners and introduce the character to the reader. It’s awkward when a stranger appears in a small gathering and, while everyone else seems to know her and interact easily, I’m distracted from the action, trying to figure out who she is.

If she’s going to be around a lot, I’d like a memorable introduction, something that makes her stand out so I’ll recognize her when we meet again. If she’s a minor player, it helps if the meeting is in keeping with her role in the story, either by putting her in a setting where her role is obvious or by explaining. For example, in a scene with a man in a restaurant, you might have the new character come in with a tray of coffee. Readers will understand that she’s some kind of server. However, if she’s not, her role or relationship should be explained so the reader won't be jarred later when the impression is corrected. Elwood continued to read as his niece  Leona came in with a cup of tea. Otherwise, if, in the middle of a scene, Leona comes in and spills tea or starts talking, the reader will be thumbing back through the pages trying to figure out who Leona is. It’s jarring.

What do you think? Does it bother you when someone walks in and you have no idea who he or she is or why they're there? Do you have any memorable examples?

7 comments:

Maryn said...

There's a direct corrolation to your post of last week and this one. I also read a book that had fourteen characters in the beginning at a gathering, and I couldn't begin to figure out who was important and who wasn't. When I lost track, I put down the book. (Might have been the same book.) Characters should be identified. Good posts, both this one an last week's.

Polly said...

I agree with Maryn completely. I couldn't have said it better myself

Ellis Vidler said...

Next week's is related too. We may have read the same book, Maryn. Too bad.

Sandy Cody said...

Yes, it bothers me a lot. I think sometimes writers read too many writing books and try to heed the warning not to load the story with unnecessary details. Knowing who the characters are IS necessary.

Nice post.

Ellis Vidler said...

Sandy, I have problems with that--what to leave in and what to take out. How much is too much? Elmore Leonard's advice is so spare, but his books seem to have more description--succinct but there. Then there's James Lee Burke, whom I love--he and Pat Conroy are very heavy on description but both do it so beautifully, it's worthwhile.
Just hard to know for me.

VR Barkowski said...

Yes, yes yes! If a writer doesn't feel it necessary to introduce the character then I assume the character isn't important. I do think if one is starting with a single character (as opposed to a group), then the reveal can be slower, one juicy bit at a time. The reader deserves something to hang on to.

All my descriptions are spare, but I don't have James Lee Burke's talent. More's the pity

Ellis Vidler said...

My descriptions are spare too. I may write more the first time around, but when I go back it seems overdone. I love the delete button!