Trying to catch up on beta-reading this week. Thinking about writing formulas again. This time, specifically in regard to introducing characters and managing character expectations.
As a reader, consciously or not, you’re constantly trying to assess the value of a particular story element. Even if you’re not analyzing it, your brain is trying to make sense of it and how it fits into the story; this is the process by which we experience narrative thought, so it’s not unnatural at all. If you’re driving and you see someone flash their brakes, you don’t have to overly analyze the occasion to still try to assess the value. Same goes for reading.
Characters are (obviously) important plot mechanics in the common story. Arguably the most important mechanic. I think often writers lose sight of this because characters are mechanics which are characterized; they have “personalities” and “feelings” – anthropomorphic accessory plot mechanics. Right? What I mean is, you have an antagonist, for example. The antagonist’s plot purpose is to impede the protagonist (by definition). Maybe the antagonist also has a heart o’ gold. This quality may seem like a human property, but in real life it’s a plot accessory to the antagonist, the effect of which includes (but isn’t limited to) additional actions the antagonist may take, or a certain feeling the reader experiences in reaction to it.
Given this, we can see that characters have payoff/climaxes just as plots do. A character, like a plot, can be seen as a fireworks show: a series of events which are fun to watch, building up to an inevitable grand finale. Usually a viewer can predict how spectacular the grand finale is going to be based on the quality of the preceding show. If the finale doesn’t match up, it feels weird and incomplete. And, most importantly, no matter what the show, the grand finale is the end. Nothing comes after it. Even if a few firecrackers go off after the finale, people are packing up and going home. The finale is what people will remember, and maybe –maybe – one or two really amazing explosions leading up to it.
Using this as a basis, we have to look at managing a reader’s expectation of characters or risk writing a story that, at best, is confusing or distracting – and at worst, doesn’t have a satisfying payoff.
Take a first example: We introduce a character – say, the main character’s friend – early on. She gets a big descriptive paragraph and has a lot of personality-full lines. We like her. Already, we as readers are building our expectations that this is going to be a character who has value; who is going to stay around, or at least have a lasting affect on the story or the main character.
What happens when this character just disappears after a few chapters when the main character runs away from home to join a rebellion? Well, if the character’s importance is that our MC thinks about her and in some way changes his actions because he knew her, then we experience relevance. But what if the mc runs off and never thinks of his childhood friend again? The reader has built an expectation and will wonder when this friend is coming back later. If she doesn’t – if Chekhov’s gun is loaded and never fired – we’re confused, wondering if we missed something and if the show’s over.
Conversely, imagine we mention an incidental background character. Then, in the middle of the story, this character is killed by the antagonist and our MC loses her shit because, we find out, that was her childhood best friend. In this case, the lack of accurate expectation and information discredits the MC’s realness.Since we weren’t anticipating this behavior (plot) because there was no foundation for it, our suspended belief is unsettled and we become very aware of the author’s manipulation of the plot.
So, how do we manage character expectation? Same as we manage plot ascension: Knowing, planning, and careful execution.
Knowing: Know what the character’s grand finale is in advance.Know what their purpose is as a plot mechanic. Acknowledge that a character is a piece of plot that you created to make plot happen. Know the character, know the plot.
Planning: Plan the fireworks show. Pace out the character’s best moments in an ascending fashion of plot effect to build up to the grand finale. By “best moments” I don’t mean happiest or doing the most good; I mean those moments in the story that the readers are going to remember. The moment they fall into the Pit of Despair; the moment they lose their temper and hurt the ones they love; the moment they realize they were wrong and decide to make things right.
Execution: Enact the brightest moments with the written intensity warranted. Want to make a big impact? Build up more and write more. Want it to be a little thing? Don’t spend too much time on it. Actual words written (foreshadowing + actual event) is a surprisingly plain and mathematical way of measuring importance within a body of work. No matter how much you think “filler words” are just padding, the more words you devote to a topic, the more it’s going to weigh in on the final read.
(Note: If you’re writing “filler words” for “padding” stop RIGHT NOW and start over. You’re doing it wrong.)
More examples: The introduction
If we view a character as a plot event, with their grand finale as the plot climax, then you can view everything a character does up until that point as foreshadowing. One of the most important pieces of character foreshadowing is the introduction. The introduction will have the most impact on the reader’s initiation of building expectation.
This doesn’t mean and important character has to have a big introduction. Actually, I really hate it when I can pick out a love interest just by how long their intro paragraph is.
No, this just means the introduction has to be right. Like always, give the reader only what they have to know, nothing more. And give them the right stuff to set them on the right foot. If you have a big muscled brute character who is secretly very intelligent, describe her as huge and muscled and then follow up (soon!) with some evidence that she is very smart. (but don’t say “But she looked smart” – show by something she does which betrays her secret smarts)
If you must be misleading, like with a spy character, then be intentionally misleading (mislead the reader in the way the character is trying to be misleading). Does he use seduction to trick the people he’s tricking? Then present him immediately as charismatic.
I mean, think of this like birds imprinting when they hatch. You have a limited amount of time before a reader is going to start filling in any holes you’ve left in your introduction; use the intro as a space to set up the framework of necessary information. Let them fill in the holes as they like; gently correct them as you build up to the grand finale. Guide the reader in constructing this character (”CHARACTER BUILDING”), an exercise which is leading up to the finale you have planned…
It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle using the box cover as a guide. Start with the corners, fill in the edges. Glance at the box cover now and again to get there. Fill in the faces and noticeable landmarks. Don’t sweat the miscellaneous pieces; they’ll find their spots soon enough. If you do it right, and the end piece your reader has assembled matches what’s on the box, everyone gets a warm fuzzy feeling.
About J.M. Lee
Born and raised in the great Minnesota north, Joe spent his formative years searching for talking animals and believing he could control the weather. After pursuing nerdy interests in comparative film studies, screenwriting, and Shakespeare, he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a much nerdier degree in linguistics with a focus in Japanese phonology. In addition to writing novels, Joe is an English tutor and writing mentor for teens and young adults of all levels and abilities. He enjoys teaching his dog new vocabulary words and updating his snooty coffee blog. He lives with his wife in Minneapolis.