Hello, may I present…
Introducing a character to the reader is a bit like introducing that special someone to your parents. The temptation is to tell everything you know about them so the reader will love them as much as you do.
The problem is that page and some of extolling the character’s looks, virtue, smarts and tough background story has derailed your plot. At the end of it the reader knows lots about the character, but they’ve lost the connection between character and story.
Here’s an example from a book I have in progress:
Frederick groaned as the cobbles dug into his back and looked up into Katerin’s brown eyes. She was not the delicate beauty of the other nobles in Lexburgh, her gown didn’t have nearly as many frills. Perhaps it was due to her, like him, being a scholarship student at her Academy. Katerin had appeared every time Vassily tortured him. He couldn’t guess at her reasoning, she risked her reputation each time she healed him. Yet here she was, again, that crooked smile on her face, as if she herself didn’t quite know why she was bending over him.
What have we learned about the plot of the story? Frederick is lying on the street, we know why since that is the prequel to this introduction. At the end of the introduction we’ve learned nothing new about Frederick. Even Katrin is mostly a sketch. Is she kind? Does she like Frederick? We don’t know, but expanding on the paragraph to tell the reader how kind she is, and how she doesn’t really like Frederick but is somehow fascinated by him won’t do much more than delay further any revelation of plot.
Here’s what I wrote:
“Why do you let him do that?” Katerin crouched beside Frederick and put her hand on his chest sending warmth through to his battered heart. It beat more regularly and he could breathe normally.
“Why do you keep showing up to help me?” Frederick took Katerin’s offered hand and she pulled him to his feet.
“Let’s say, I’m not a fan of the Harnchev family.” She frowned, her deep brown eyes clouded before she shook her head and let go of his hand. “You need to move if you’re going to keep to your schedule.”
“You know about my schedule?” Frederick’s heart banged in his chest for a different reason.
“How long have I been stopping to help you?” She patted the same cheek Vassily slapped and walked briskly away. Frederick had followed her one time to watch her enter the girl’s version of the Academy on the far side of the huge green space which formed the center of Lexburg. The punishment for missing the first class was severe – ten soft lashes and then he had to run laps of the campus until he collapsed.
Now what have we learned from this introduction? We don’t know she’s on scholarship, but do we need that knowledge yet? Not really. We also get the bit on how she dresses, that may or may not be important to the plot. I’m somewhat infamous with my editors for not describing characters. So maybe the dress could find its way into the revision, but probably not.
The reason for that is I want show her emotional conflict. Note she doesn’t directly answer his question, instead she responds that she doesn’t like Vassily’s family. What we do get is she’s a healer of some kind. Her touch helps his heart and breathing.
She is familiar with Frederick’s schedule even if she doesn’t want to explain why. Perhaps her reason is not one Frederick would like, thus her walking away instead of answering directly.
As a bonus we learn some things about Frederick too. He is attracted to Katerin at some level. He appreciates her help, even as he doesn’t understand it. Katerin fascinates him enough to make him late for school, once.
At the same time we learn the schools are separated by a large green space, and at Frederick’s at least punishment is harsh.
It could be argued that the bit about him following her is exposition, and I’d agree, but it also fits as immediate reflection by Frederick. He tried to learn more and it resulted in a painful lesson. So I’ll probably keep it in revision, but edit it to reveal more setting without taking anymore space.
The trick is to weave information into the story, make it part of the story. Not only do we meet Katerin, but we find out there is some conflict about what she is doing. I try to use dialogue as part of most of my character introductions. Even in the snippet before this one, Vassily gets lines to say to show us his character. (He’s a jerk.)
Now when I want to show more about Katerin, maybe about her relationship with her Academy, or her classmates, I’ll put her into another scene with more action and dialogue. The reader sees her and a bit more is revealed, but only as it is needed.
The same process works for setting, not that the character talks to the setting, but they can talk about it, or interact with it. Those cobbles under Frederick tell us a lot about Lexburgh. (I have them in a slightly different place in the revision)
Interaction with the setting could include a character shivering in the wind, pulling their collar up to try to stay dry in the rain, him tripping on holes in the road. The smell of horse manure, or the scent of blossoms. The sight of the Academy, the sounds of other students chattering.
Because these are part of the character’s experience, the reader experiences them too, and the story keeps moving forward.
Now, what happens if we need more information right from the start? We make the scene longer and weave it in. Action, thought, dialogue all can show us what characters are like. Past actions of the character may affect the present moment of the POV character. Perhaps a memory of a mentor brought out by the experience.
We do need to be careful with the reflection on character as it can turn into exposition disguised as thought. The litmus test to decide if we are writing reflection or exposition is the emotional weight. The memory means something, it changes the emotional state of the person remembering.
That brings us to the crux of the matter. If anything we’ve write does not move the story forward, either revealing plot or characters interacting with the plot, we need to cut it or rewrite it. That means a lot more work from us as storytellers, but our reader will thank us.
Tags: description, introductions, removing exposition