The Art of Introduction

As I work through the beginning of a new manuscript, I'm reminded of the challenges of introductions. Not so much of the story, but of the characters the reader will need to follow through the coming pages.

One mistake I often see in unpublished manuscripts -- and more than a few that make it through to publications -- is the tendency to bring in too many characters at once. In general, the fewer you introduce at a time, the better. Otherwise the reader may have trouble keeping names straight and differentiating the characters from one another.

In some books, however -- including my current project -- it's necessary to introduce characters in groups rather than one by one. If you have to do this, less is more. In other words, keep your group of family members, coworkers, et cetera, as small as you can manage. Give some characters dual roles. (Agent/author Donald Maass calls this "telescoping" in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel.) For example, if the head of the hero's department is also his brother-in-law, readers will have someone recognizable to anchor them when they go from the workplace to the family celebration scene. Since I write books set in small towns, overlapping roles are very likely.

Another important factor is each individual character's distinctiveness. If you absolutely have to introduce, say, a half-dozen firefighters at once, choose a few on which to focus, and carefully differentiate them in terms of how they speak/act/attitude, dress (even people in uniform can vary, some wearing rumpled, faded, stained, or ill-fitting versions while others don meticulously ironed clothing or perhaps a shirt so obviously new one can still make out the creases from the package), age, and appearance. Rather than sling out too many details at once, choose one or two "distinguishing features" matched with individualized dialogue. All you're trying to accomplish is recognition later in the story when the character pops up again. If you fail and the reader has to flip back to figure out who on earth someone is, this can destroy the story's flow -- or be distastrous if the character ends up having a crucial role near the book's ending. (I once read the unveiling of a mystery's killer and exclaimed, "Who the heck is that?" Totally wrecked the impact when I had to start flipping through pages to come up with an answer.)

Names are also very important. I try to avoid using too many sound-alike names or names beginning with the same letter. I like to throw in likely nicknames here and there, but I try not to get too weird with character names, which to me can make the characters sound artificial. If someone does have a supremely odd or ill-fitting name, another character might comment on it, but otherwise, I like them to sound like the kind of name you might encounter in real life.

Do you have any pet peeves to share about character introductions? Or any rules of thumb to share? If so, I'd love to hear from you.