Started reading Jeffrey Deaver's The Sleeping Doll last night—I love his books. Although I've only read around 50 pages, I realized that I finally stumbled upon something that I may have done correctly and figured out for myself. It's the difficult process of getting a large cast of characters in front of the reader without hopelessly confusing them.
I wrote a manuscript—a Regency Mystery—a couple of years ago. It's called The Vital Principle. The first scene is a séance and there are 13 people present. One of them kills their host. So I had to introduce all 13 to the reader and not confuse the heck out of everyone. Initially, I had the heroine, Pru, study each participant as she glanced around the table. I made sure each character had some defining characteristic and hook the reader could use to identify the character. But it was still confusing—too many people and names to keep track of. Then I hit upon the idea of just saying, there are 13 people present. The people only get "introduced" as they are "needed on stage" because they are doing or saying something. Which stretched out the introductions over a longer interval so that readers could meet them "one at a time".
It seemed to work better that way.
Then low and behold, when I started reading Deaver's The Sleeping Doll and was relieved to see that I inadvertently stumbled upon an appropriate technique. There are a lot of characters that Deaver wants you to know about, right up front in this book. Most of them form the task force given the assignment of catching an escaped killer. And he did exactly the same thing I did. What a relief to discover that I was heading in the right direction.
So let's look at what Deaver did.
First: He introduces the bad guy and a surviving victim, the Sleeping Doll, in a "newspaper article" about the bad guy's murder spree and subsequent conviction. So we learn the bad guy's name and the fact that he committed Manson-esque murders, so we know enough about him to understand he's a really, really bad guy. We, the reader, have now "got him". We're also aware of the girl dubbed the Sleeping Doll, although we have not met her.
By the way, an important part of meeting a character is learning some basic traits or characteristics about that character. This lets you begin to build a picture of the character and gives you a "handle" for the character. Sort of like: Oh, this guy's an insane, Manson-esque killer with charisma. Okay, got him. The difference between this and the Sleeping Doll is that all we know about the girl is that she was asleep in a pile of dolls when the murders occurred and she escaped. So we don't know anything about her, per se. We know nothing about what she looks like, acts like or her character. So although we know her name, we don't know her. Yet.
This intro "newspaper article" runs for about 2 pages.
Second: Deaver introduces Kathryn Dance. She's the heroine who will have to recapture the killer, Daniel Pell. In this chapter, Kathryn is interviewing Pell. We learn all about Kathryn, her skills as an interviewer, and what she looks like. We get a closer look at Pell and learn more about his personality. We learn he is a powerful, in-control bad guy even though he's in prison. And we learn that Kathryn is just as smart and powerful in her way, so the "contest between them" is pretty evenly matched. This sets up tension because neither one is obviously weaker than the other. They are worthy opponents.
This section runs for about 6 pages. It "cements" the primary characters, Kathryn and Pell, and the reader now knows how each character talks, acts, and thinks.
I'm giving you pages so you can see how long Deaver takes to accomplish his introductions. It's not very long and you're given a lot of information about the characters. By the end of this section, you have a pretty good feel for Kathryn and Pell.
Third: Now the secondary characters start to roll in. But not too quickly. First we get Alonzo Sandoval. He gets a description and short exchange with Kathryn before we get the next character: TJ. He gets a longer paragraph of description, and a brief exchange with Kathryn. Then we get Juan Miller. He gets a very short description and a few words. Then all these characters discuss what is going on. That's three characters, but by now, we know Kathryn pretty well and we can pick them up pretty well.
Through the character interactions on the next couple of pages, Deaver feeds us tags to hang on the three new characters so we can remember who they are. Juan Miller is lanky and has a scar on his hand that is the remnant of a removed gang tattoo. TJ is unconventional and wears a T-shirt under a plaid sports coat. Sandoval is handsome and round with a thick black moustache.
These three get three pages of interactions with Kathryn. Not long for three characters, but he gives you tags and the reader is ready to move on.
Fourth: Back to Pell and his escape. We meet two guards but not for long. Although we get to know them well enough and for long enough to feel sorry for them. They get several pages though as Pell escapes. (And okay, it's not like I'm ruining the story—there wouldn't be a story if he didn't escape at the beginning and come on. You didn't think he was going to escape without bloodshed, did you? Come on.)
The next few chapters are the same—you get the point. He gives you a couple of pages as each new character is pulled into the drama. You get descriptions and interchanges with the main characters so you get a "feel" for how each character acts, speaks, and looks. You get tags to help identify the characters. A tag can be a personality trait like some weird speech pattern or a particular talent/skill such as Kathryn's interview skills. Or, a tag can be a physical trait like Juan's scar left from the tattoo removal. It doesn't really matter what the unique trait it, as long as it gives your reader a handle to remember which character is which. It helps if you also remind the reader about the relationships, as well, for example which character is a co-worker, which is a boss, etc, so the reader can establish those things as well. It lets the reader build the "society" of your story.
To summarize: If you have a lot of characters to introduce to your readers, remember a few things…
- Only introduce characters at the point at which they have something to do or say. Don't just introduce all the characters in the room if some of them are just sitting and listening. Only describe them when they actually take some action or say something.
- Try to give each main character a few pages so the readers can get to know them before moving on to minor characters. If you can do what Deaver did and get the two main characters interacting with each other for a few pages right away, it's even better. We can get the measure of the two characters and see if they are evenly matched, what their goals, strengths and weaknesses are, so the tension can begin to rise. It is the interaction between the two, and the relative strengths of the characters that will give rise to your reader's initial level of interest and tension. Tension is good but remember, you can't have tension in a situation where one opposing force is much stronger than the other.
- Make sure you give the reader handles for the characters. And try not to make the handles stereotypical. Like having a bespectacled librarian with her hair in a bun. Give us a librarian who looks like Arnold Swartzenegger. And is a woman. ;-) Repeat the handles when the characters are onstage so the readers immediately identify them. I'm not saying you should be repetitive and always say: "the muscle-bound librarian" every time you have the librarian in the scene. Vary the description—and toward the end, you can even let it go because by that time, the reader will know. But at the beginning, reminding the reader that the librarian's sleeves actually split when she nonchalantly picked up a carton of new books will remind the reader. Speech patterns are excellent handles because characters should each have their own way of speaking that should not be interchangeable with other characters.