Answering Your Writing Questions: Introducing Characters

This is the third post in an ongoing series of answering readers' questions.  It's not to late to ask something! Just go back to the original post and leave your question in the comments.

Today's question comes from my wonderful Loft student Karen Phillips:

If an important character doesn't come in until later in story, do you need to introduce it (this character is a dog) somewhere in the first or second chapter? I read in Stephen King's On Writing that you should introduce them early on, but would love to hear your thoughts. I'm struggling with this because of the chronological issues.

The crux of this issue is playing fair with the reader.  You don't want to throw a new character at them at the end, leaving your reader trying to figure out where this new person came from.  That's cheating.  We have an expectation that all the players in the drama will be placed onstage early on, so we can get familiar with them and their stories.  Bringing a character on at the end robs us of the chance to get to know them. 

In a mystery, it is considered fair game--and good writing--to introduce all the suspects as early as possible.  It's a major cheat to bring the perpetrator of the crime in at the end and if you do that, you'll have readers throwing the book across the room.

There's a psychological thing that readers go through wherein whatever character they read about on the page first is the one they will assume is the main character.  It is essential to orient your reader with the main character from the very beginning.  This is why it is so dizzying to read a novel that doesn't begin with the main character's viewpoint--you're thrown off your story orientation from the very start.

So all that being said, how do you get a character in early on if the dictates or chronology of the story won't allow it?  Sometimes just a mention is enough.   Have a character mention the one in question.  As an example, in the novel I'm currently working on, the protagonist has an ex-husband.  When I began writing the novel, the ex didn't exist as I didn't know she'd been married before.  Then I realized she was on her second marriage and the ex came through as a fleeting thought in her mind.  Then he became more important and came through as another character mentioning him.  Then he became even more important and now warrants an actual phone conversation.  So there are degrees of importance and you can allot novel space accordingly.

In the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,which I highly recommend, there's a character who doesn't come in until three-quarters through.  He's important to one of the main characters, but he is basically a sub-plot of the main story.  (The way the movie is structured, each of the main characters has a story, and all of these sub-plots make up the main story.  Am I making sense?)  The way he is shown early on is in a brief glimpse of an old photo.  The viewer gets a whiff of something, they aren't sure what but the film makers have played fair in letting us in on the story.

In the case of a character that's a dog, I'd ask if it is truly a main character or perhaps more of a catalyst?  I'm not sure, but one way you might be able to get around it is to have the character who gets the dog think of or mention the desire for a dog early on.  Then it is set up.  In novel writing, it is all about setting things up.

Please comment. I'd love to hear everyone's take on this.  How and when do you introduce characters?

Also, I'm excited to announce a new class on Authenticity and Creativity.  It's a one-session telecall that I'm co-hosting with Karen Caterson and we've just opened registration.  Check out our page for more information and consider joining us!


Answering Your Writing Questions: Teaching vs. Writing

This is number two in an ongoing series in which I answer your writing questions. (It's not too late to ask one--you can check out the original post I wrote and leave a question in the comments.  I'll either devote a blog post to it or respond in the comments themselves if it's a short answer.)

My wonderful cyber-friend and amazing blogger Patrick Ross asked today's question.  If you haven't already, be sure to check out his blog, The Artist's Road.  It was voted one of the Top Ten Best Blogs for Writers and with good reason, which I'll leave it to you to find out.

Patrick asked:

How would you describe the balance you find between teaching writing and doing your own writing? I'm wondering if the process of working with other writers, and more specifically other writers' prose, interferes with your own writing process.

Thanks, Patrick, great question.  I think it is one we all struggle with, in different ways.  We want to be writers, with plenty of time to work on our own projects, and yet we have to make a living, too.  One obvious way is to teach, which I do.

Every so often, I decide that being a best-selling novelist would be the ticket--all day to work on fiction projects of my choosing with no other distractions.  It's my dream life. But then I remember how much I love blogging so I add that back onto my dream life.

And then I have a coaching call or lead a workshop and remember why I do it.  So I add that back in, too.  And I realize that I pretty much have my dream life.  I teach and coach writers  because it energizes and inspires me.  Not only that, I learn so much from my students and clients.  

Yes, there are some days that I would prefer to have more time to work on my fiction projects.  But if I went over to only writing fiction, I know I'd miss working with writers.  I'd miss the clarity that it gives me.  When I have to explain a technique on my blog, or point out how a student could make an aspect of her manuscript better, I have to think it through first.  And that gives me a much deeper understanding of my craft, which I can then use in my own work.

In terms of whether or not working with other writer's prose interferes, the answer is also no.  I can get very involved with my student's work, but I'm also able to keep a distance so that its not influencing me.  I fancy it is just like how some people don't like to read novels when they are working on novels because it influences or inhibits their own writing.  But I'm the opposite--when I'm immersed in a project, I need to read more.  Words in, words out.

So the short answer to your question is that I love teaching and coaching!

How about you guys?  Do you struggle to find balance?  How do you achieve it?


Answering Your Writing Questions: First Person

On Friday, I offered to answer any and all of your writing-related questions, and some good ones have come in.  Today, I answer a question from mystery writer and loyal reader J.D. Frost:

When writing in first person, can I stay in active voice without beginning every sentence with I?

This problem is the very reason that I vowed never to write in first person again.  (Those of you who read this blog regularly know I recently forsook that vow.) In the past when I've written first person, I've gotten mired in that I, I, I, I, I voice, where it seems like every sentence begins with I. And that does not make for a very flowy voice.  When I wrote my MFA novel in first person, my biggest complaint was that it just didn't sound right.  And I never could get it to sound right because of the preponderance of "I"s. 

But a funny thing happened when I switched my novel from third person to first person.  There were stretches of sentences that had no "I"s in them, because when writing in third person I hadn't felt the need to start every sentence with an I.  And it worked just fine.    So here are a couple of tips that will help:

1.  Get rid of the filtering consciousness.  Edit out all the "I saw" and "I heard" and "I smelled" constructions at the beginning of sentences and you'll be left with the meat of it.  By now we know that your viewpoint character is telling us the story. Work what's left of the sentence into an active piece of writing.

2.  Be the camera.  Report what your character sees, in camera fashion, in an objective way.  Read Hemingway for this.  He reports like a journalist with very little emotion (where you might be tempted to get that "I" in) and its very powerful.  Or, as Zan Marie put it in a comment below, it's not what the character is doing, it is what they are perceiving.  Well put, Zan Marie!

3.  Practice with description.  You can write paragraphs of description without need for the "I" voice. Then start translating these skills to the rest of your writing.  James Lee Burke is a master at description and he writes often in first person.

Anybody else have any helpful ideas for writing first person?  Leave them in the comments, we'd love to hear them.