It's been a while since I've posted as part of my "What's in a Word?" series, but a few recent conversations with my crit partners inspired this post. We were discussing how to successfully introduce a large cast of characters without throwing them at the reader all at once with brief explanations of who they are.
Explanations the reader might not remember by the next time we see this person, five or six chapters later.
Imagine you are going to a party where you don't know anyone. Scene one: Your host meets you at the door, blurts his name, then drags you around the room, saying, "Oh, this is Jane. She's Sue's next door neighbor. That's Sue. She owns a dog-walking service. That's Bill, he has four dogs, but he doesn't use Sue's service, he uses Jim's..."
Get the idea? How many of you have found yourself in just such a situation? Did you remember a single person five minutes past introductions? Especially if you never interacted with them again?
Now, scenario two: When you arrive, your host introduces him or herself, welcomes you warmly, and eases you into the environment. He or she will show you around, just what you need to know right now, get you a drink, and tell you a little bit about themselves, get to know you.
You're now enmeshed in the setting.
Next, they'll introduce you to the next most important person there: their partner. Could be a business partner, could be a romantic interest. You come to understand a lot about the partner by how fondly, or not, your host speaks of them.
There, now you know the two key players in the game, and hopefully, a bit about what's going on and why you were invited. Are you there to meet coworkers? Is this a social event like a birthday party?
Setting, characters, purpose have now been named. Only when you have grasped these basics does your host show you around.
First you meet Barbara, and engage in a conversation. Oh! Barbara went to the same university! Cool. You chat a few moments about what you have in common. You remember Barbara's name, and associate her with your alma mater.
Next you meet Brian, who has the cutest Southern accent. You chat for a few minutes, you enthralled by his charm, and he laughing at your sense of humor.
Not only are you more likely to remember these to people when you meet again, you will eagerly anticipate that moment.
And that, folks, is how someone with my somewhat less than stellar memory likes to meet the characters in a book. If you throw them at me all at once, I'm not going to know who is important and who isn't. If you call her "Mary Jean Simmons", the appearance of her full name says, "Remember her, she's important!" Well, then you try to commit her to memory, totally skipping past, "the man in the red sweater", who turns out to be the catalyst for the whole story.
In story setup, like real life, the most important details should come first. Now, if the guy in the red sweater turns out to be the killer, who shall remain unnamed until the right moment, it's great when he's woven into the plot, not enough to give away the big reveal, but enough so that when the "A-ha!" moment comes, the reader can look back over the story and piece together the clues.
Nothing is more satisfying for a reader to reach then end and triumphantly say, "I knew it was him!" Especially if they had to work for that conclusion, but it made total sense in the end.