Hi, I’m Barbara D’Amato. Thank you for visiting The Outfit Collective.
I read when I should be writing, when I should be cleaning out a closet or flushing the septic tank or mincing leeks. Probably I read one crime novel every two days or so— a long one takes maybe three days. Lately, I’ve read a few books where one or more characters are not adequately introduced.
See, I’m reading along happily, a hundred pages or so in, and some guy named Bill pops up. Who is Bill? Is he the best friend, the old enemy, the family lawyer, the drug pusher? These are not all the same people, mind you. I start paging back through the book, looking for the first appearance of Bill. Talk about taking the reader out of the story!
Aha. Maybe he’s this William guy, sometimes called Will. Or Wm. Replevin, Esq., the lawyer. Aha. Yes. Now where was I--?
Putting the reader through this confusion is not necessary. The author may be trying for naturalism or faster pace. Or maybe the author is fearful that saying something clear, like “Bill the lawyer” too often would be tedious for the reader. But the reader’s eye passes right over that extra, helpful information, just taking in the fact of who the character actually is. This is good.
Refer to each character the same way each time. At least until you are sure the reader knows the character, call him by the same name.
There are several other ways, too, of introducing characters and keeping them straight for the reader.
Don’t be afraid to mention the character’s relationship or profession.
Give the character characteristic speech and keep it consistent.
Yes, this can be overdone. Remember the anglo-Indian colonel? Never used pronouns. “Mmmmf, mmmf. Must trek to town. Been a fortnight. Out of Pimm’s cup, what? What-what?” But everybody has some idiosyncrasies in phrasing or accent.
Have other characters react to this character in characteristic ways.
Or: Have the other characters react to this character in the way you want the reader to react. This is one of the least obtrusive techniques for defining a character, and since other characters in the story are having their say as they react, it helps define them, too. “Bill, you talk too much. You never let me get a word in.” The speaker clearly wants some attention, plus we know that Bill is a chatterer.
If other characters in a book like good old Bill, so will the reader. Which is also a neat trick if Bill is the killer.
Connect an event, a point of view, an argument, or even an object to the character. Remember Long John Silver? He had a parrot on his shoulder and a wooden leg. Too much? Sure, but the man who keeps fiddling with his pipe is given memorability and character, especially if he uses the pipe as a cover for not wanting to answer a question, or a barrier between himself and other people. Or maybe he’s just clumsy—spills tobacco, drops his pipe, drops glassware and falls over his feet.
Then there’s the guy who can’t stop grumbling over the lack of parking spaces in Chicago – no, no wait. That’s all of us. Doesn’t distinguish him at all.
One of the books I read in the last week revealed the killer by name on the second-to-last page. On the basis of the name, I could not remember which person he was, although I figured it out from a couple of final details. This really detracted from the surprise the author was trying to produce. [Three of the main characters, by the way, had names beginning with Mi-.]
Don’t do this to your readers.