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In my story, I have 8 characters I really want to focus on, which is already a pretty large cast to begin with. At the beginning of the book, something important happens to each of the 8 that kicks off the main conflict of the story. The introductions of these characters can’t be skipped, and each incident is different, so multiple inciting events can’t be grouped into 1 chapter. However, I feel like slamming down 8 consecutive chapters of introduction after introduction at the very start of the story would get awfully repetitive, and 8 inciting events one after another would probably be very overwhelming to read about. How would I fix this?

If possible, I’d like to avoid the “expositional flashback” trope too.

  • What's the genre? Are they friends, colleagues? – Boondoggle Jan 26 '18 at 3:11
  • @Boondoggle The genre is sci-fi, and their storylines are meant to be connected, but not all of them will be friends. – Eucaa Jan 26 '18 at 3:34
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    What is the reason why you would like to avoid the expositional flashback? – FraEnrico Jan 26 '18 at 8:16
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    @FraEnrico It seems a little stereotypical and overused to me. If there’s really no other way to pull this introduction off, I might as well use it, but if there’s another way around the flashback trope I’d much rather prefer to use that. – Eucaa Jan 26 '18 at 20:57
  • Don't these 8 characters interact with each other? – LarsTech Jan 26 '18 at 21:02
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Look at The Stand (by Stephen King), Tolkien. Send your characters on a journey.

I haven't read the above in decades, but they have many characters (far more than eight) and you can follow their pattern: Characters are introduced as the story is developing.

You already say each incident is different. You need to link your incidents into a story line, that just ONE or TWO main "leading" characters encounter along the way. King has a "good team" and "evil team", introduce one guy at the opening of the book (intentionally very average) and begins his story. That's the good guy, and becomes the leader.

At first he strikes out on his own, following a dream (that all the good guys also have and follow), but along the way encounters more of the good team. Weak ones that need protection (he is a good guy so he 'adopts' them), etc, and is eventually seen as their leader.

King alternates with the bad guys, similarly. An incident, they set out, and without intending to do so, either create another incident or run into one that yields another bad guy.

Tolkien does the same. Characters are introduced throughout, as they are needed, they are met.

Make sure your characters NAMES are different enough to not be confused; no pairs the reader would get confused like "Jake / Jack" "Bill / Phil", or "Mary / Marnie", no matter how much you love the names. Baby names are available online, or get a character naming book, or use your imagination for invented names. Try to make them look different (not similar spelling) and sound different when spoken aloud. Neither spelling or sound should allow confusion. And unless you desperately need it for some mistaken identity plot reason, no two characters with the same name. It is a cliché route to comic effect, "Hi. I'm Larry. This is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl." (Bob Newhart, 1982)

To introduce a lot of characters, find a way to connect your inciting events in some sequence. Preferably chronological, perhaps in two geographic paths instead of one (one path for heroes, one for villains), and give the first characters, because of what happens to them (perhaps investigating what has happened to them) in Miami, reason to visit Dallas where the next incident and hero/villain has their transformative beginning: Reason for the first to witness this event, at least.

People will get bored with eight consecutive disconnected chapters of introduction. Two would be okay, a good side and an evil side, but IMO for eight: Your only good solution is to connect them through the POV of existing characters.

Note that POV does not necessarily have to join forces or meet up: Joe is introduced in Miami, travels to Dallas, witnesses the inexplicable destruction of Dallas. Joe's actions in Dallas (helping people, running away) do not have to result in any new allies, but after Joe decides to leave, or gets his Clue that he needs to get to Los Angeles, he leaves, passing the rubble of an airport which is described. Joe finds a sturdy bicycle there in good shape. Before he leaves, he spray paints on a still-standing wall, "Get To L.A." along with the date and "Joe". Then he mounts the bike and starts out on Interstate 10 for L.A.

The next chapter lets Joe go (in the reader's mind, Joe's trip can be uneventful for several chapters). Instead, we connect via that bicycle, not a quarter mile from where Joe departed, we find new character Kevin, trapped in the rubble and watching him leave, he wants to shout for help but cannot. He sees Joe paint something. Then Kevin's struggle to escape, eventually he does, and sees the sign, and he is off to L.A. too. The reader knows Kevin and Joe will meet up.

The point is, There is a story link in the reader's mind. It is the magic of touch or proximity, a tenuous link, but a continuous one by virtue of the common setting of the collapsed airport, and Kevin knows Joe exists, and has some reason to be headed for L.A. so ... why not? Until something changes his mind. Maybe Kevin finds a working motorcycle and catches up with Joe. If Joe is leaving behind spray painted signs, other new characters can encounter them too.

Of course that's an apocalyptic scenario, but similarly engineered ideas can apply without total destruction, and without magical dreams. Connect your characters, give them a mission in their chapter to get somewhere, build something, find something, etc, but make it a mundane mission that will take some time so the reader does not mind leaving that character to make some uneventful progress for a few chapters while they read about something more interesting than the interminable grind of riding a bike 800 miles.

This avoids flashback. An alternative that can be used on its own or in concert with this is simultaneous events in different locales. A chapter begins with a bold sub-heading (or on screen a title), like "Christmas Day, 2030, TOKYO", aliens arrive, a character is introduced. The next chapter: "Christmas Day, 2030, NEW YORK", the next, "Christmas Day, 2030, CAPETOWN", then "Christmas Day, 2030, SYDNEY", etc. These are not flashbacks (memories of a character), but a common method of describe simultaneous events, I've seen the time specified to the minute for such simultaneity. Which precludes describing them all at once in a jumble.

However, I prefer the "story linked" introductions myself. One other trick is a different kind of POV link: Character Joe is talking to people, looking for something or someone, and hears tell (via TV, radio, telephone or other remote means) of something happening in Seattle. He knows he must go there. Next chapter: Seattle! Linda's event! She leaves Seattle! Next chapter with Joe: On the way to Seattle, he meets Kevin. Next chapter with Linda: she meets Joe and Kevin.

  • This is a good suggestion. Master of None used this technique to good effect on an episode that introduced several sets of characters who don't otherwise appear in the show through the magic of proximity. – Chris Sunami Jan 26 '18 at 14:31
  • Tolkien dwarves didn't get your memo on names. – svavil Jan 27 '18 at 10:10
  • @svavil :-) True enough! Personally, I would have suggested Tolkien find a bit more separation between the names of cousins Bifur and Bofur, but maybe that's just me! – Amadeus Jan 27 '18 at 12:42
6

I would try to introduce the characters in groups. If some of them are friends with each other, that makes a natural group. Even enemies can make a good group for an introduction, perhaps a police detective and the criminal she caught.

I agree that introducing them as individuals would make it difficult for me to stay interested when reading. I would be likely to toss the book down after the fifth introduction because I'd probably have forgotten important details about the fist character by then.

Another way to do this is to spread the introductions out way more than normal. For example, in Roger Zelazny's Amber books, some of the characters aren't even talked about until book two of the series. The person the narrator is telling the story to isn't introduced until the last book in the first series (book 5).

All of their stories are intertwined, but for the purpose of these books, the narrator is the most important character.

The Lord of the Rings kept bringing in characters and I can't remember most of them. I wish that Tolkien had stopped with a couple of hobbits, Strider, Gandalf, and a few short-term characters. There were too many important characters. The writing and plotting were excellent, but I can't get through the books without a crib sheet for the characters.

  • so many commonalities with my answer ^^ – Boondoggle Jan 26 '18 at 4:56
  • True, but I wrote mine first. :) – NomadMaker Jan 26 '18 at 5:06
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Okay, it is a difficult problem. I think I would group the characters into groups of 3 and 5. The human brain likes patterns and grouping things together. That's also how some people can count really fast. Or think about how people have a certain pattern for remembering their phone number.

So, you could start with 3 friends and then have a certain event happen. Something out of the order (sci-fi event) happens which gets the story rolling and catches the reader's attention. You can start giving context through dialogue. Also, telecommunications can be useful to link two different events at separate locations sharing the same time window.

I think you could describe your characters by describing the world and point of view of the main characters. Indirectly, by shaping the world, you're also defining the characters (in the philosophy of Alan Watts). The outside world is as much part of the characters, as the characters are part of the outside world. At some point in space and time you can have the storyline overlap with that of the other 5 characters, whether they meet or not. By already having described the world you can reduce the need for adding extra context later on.

It's all right if you wait a few chapters before introducing the other characters, even when the are part of the conflict. I think withholding certain information can make it more interesting. Timing is important.

Let's say each of your eight characters get some superpower around the same time. The three friends do not have to know about the other five guys. They may get persecuted, but they do not have to know by who exactly. This way you can share storylines without the reader knowing yet that there is an other storyline. This is one way to give information without being repetitive.

So interweaving storylines by a shared world is a possibility. Another possibility I can think of is teleportation or space-time jumps where a character moves between different worlds. You can use that character to switch between storylines or settings.

Eight storylines might be difficult. I think Lord of the Rings had three storylines. Cloud Atlas had six storylines if I remember correctly, but the timelines of the stories were separated.

So, eight characters is doable and eight events is possible too. Eight parallel storylines might be asking too much.

1

It's hard to follow, but I think you either have to keep the 8 inciting incidents at flash-fiction length (1-2 pages) or you have to give up on the idea of introducing 8 characters separately in this way. I expect there's a way to do it, but it doesn't sound like you've constructed a solvable problem and you may have to revisit some of the walls you've constructed for yourself.

http://www.writingexcuses.com/2017/07/02/12-27-choosing-a-length/

Story Length (words) = ((Characters + Locations) * 750) * 1.5(Mice Quotient Elements)

So if you have 8 locations, 8 characters and your Mice Quotient element is always the same (probably difficult) you're at 18000 words just for the opening (20% of your book). Not bad if you can transition immediately into the middle of the story.

But you're right that you're likely stretching what a reader is willing to accept. And if you at all think it's boring to look at the same event from 8 perspectives then you probably shouldn't do it.

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When you introduce all 8 characters one after another before their storylines merge, then the reader will have to keep 8 parallel storylines in their head at once. This is a problem, because humans can only keep about 7 facts in their head at once.

What you can do instead is have one main storyline mostly driven by one main protagonist and weave in the storylines of the other characters into it as you introduce them.

Example chapter structure:

  1. A is introduced
  2. B is introduced
  3. A and B meet and kick off the plot
  4. C is introduced
  5. C meets AB and joins them in the main plot
  6. D is introduced
  7. D's relevance to the plot of Team ABC is made obvious
  8. More main plot advancement by Team ABC
  9. E is introduced
  10. E joins D in their plot which is directly connected to the main plot
  11. Team ABC meet Team DE, and their storylines merge

...and so on.

The important thing here is:

  • Kick off your main plot early to capture the reader's attention
  • Connect every new character to the main plot as early as possible, so the reader knows why they should care about them.

By the way: I am aware that this advise contradicts the classical 3 act structure for narrative fiction (introduce all important characters and the basic story premise in act 1, start advancing the plot as you start act 2). But when you introduce 8 different characters with no clear connection to each other in act 1, the reader likely won't endure until act 2.

0

You need to introduce you characters that's a given but do you need to introduce them to the readers as a separate exercise, there I'm not so sure. It's going to read a little flashback-ish but if you present them to each other and they tell their stories of how they got caught up in this whole saga to each other, preferably with action scene interruptions you can introduce them separately and together at the same time and reduce the information burden on the reader to something manageable.

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