CRAFT: Introducing major characters–how late is too late?

I’ve promoted a comment from the other day up here so we can all discuss this, because there will be differing opinions.

asks about introducing a major character who doesn’t come onstage until late in a novel. I think this is a great question about storybuilding and “playing fair” with readers, while getting the chance to be a bit mysterious and pique their interest.

Here’s the situation: in the prologue, James is introduced as a small boy who is taken from his mother back in the 1660s. 14K words later, the adult James shows up again (in our own time–apparently a time-traveler), but is introduced only as JP. The reader is finally told around 65k into the story that these are the same person (but the smart ones suspected already (grin)). He’s the second most important character in the tale, so should he be introduced earlier? Or mentioned earlier?

I posted a few days ago about ways to raise story questions by mentioning characters who aren’t yet onstage fairly early on. Without reading the story, I can’t know how many clues you already drop (this would be under the category of “visible breadcrumbs,” I think, as we discussed earlier!), but I do think clues are very important. Readers should have a fair chance to figure something like this out and can feel clever when they discover they were right! Some readers will even backtrack to see where the clues were planted *ahem* and decide whether it was fair play or not.

My gut feeling is that people should definitely know about this fellow. Either someone has been researching him for genealogy (say) and perhaps can mention to a friend how she found birth records for this guy on the ‘net but then he disappeared at age so-and-so and there are no death records or marriage records . . . or maybe someone has heard the legend of how this child was taken, and the family rumor has always been that his name was changed and he was taken overseas to be a slave and later started the Universal Widget Company. Or whatever. This legend can be complete B. S., by the way, or can be an incredibly embroidered version of the truth, or can be part fantasy and part truth. Work it in somewhat early on, so that readers can file this away in their memories to be seized on later.

Or perhaps there’s an old oil painting that’s come down through the family . . . or is in a local museum . . . or that somebody runs across at a flea market. The 1600s would be too early for a daguerrotype or any kind of photo, but a sketch might survive. That painting can have some kind of cryptic note on the back, and someone can have it hanging on the wall. The portrait, of course, is of the mother and this child, James. When JP shows up, people might remark on how much he looks like the mom in the picture . . . and hey, he could’ve been that kid!

You get the idea.

I’ll bet a lot of you have great ideas about this. But we’ll all agree, I think, that it would work best if you could manage to have some kind of “family legend” or a historical tidbit that some librarian type (ahem) runs across, and then early on the reader will know that this stuff will come up again.

What say you all?


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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