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I'm trying to reveal the main character's background without diving into flashbacks or actually setting parts of the story in his past. So on three occasions I have three characters (two B characters, and one C character) reflect on an incident in the past of this character. These are at three different points in the story.

Is this a bad idea? It would be odd for the protagonist to suddenly dwell upon those past events himself, but they were more significant to the other characters, so its more natural that they would think of them.

I have four main POVs through the story, not including these three I'm asking about.

Any advice much appreciated.

Edit: Thank you all, that's incredibly helpful and I'm going to read through your comments a few times. These three characters do exist within the plot, so I'm not worried about a walk-on walk-off situation, but I did have concerns about their POV jarring if only used once, and about giving them too much prominence.

  • Since you have four main POV characters, can't one of the single-use characters just recount the relevant incident to one of the POV characters? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 16 '18 at 0:10
  • That would definitely work in one of the cases. In the other two, the 'insight' they have on the past incident they wouldn't share with anyone else because it would work against their own characters' agendas. – Weebo Jul 16 '18 at 0:18
  • One important consideration is: avoid the impression that any of these characters are stepping forward into the spotlight; that they're about to get arcs and POV threads of their own. – Standback Jul 16 '18 at 2:30
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    I'll note there are certainly other possible solutions for the backstory issue -- but your question is about this possible solution. And it's a good question! :-) – Standback Jul 16 '18 at 2:32
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First I would ask why there are three of them rather than one character whose recollections can be used as ongoing exposition about the main character's past. It makes more sense, to me at least, to use a single character who knows the protagonist's history than to use a number of bit players' single encounters. If only because of the amount of work needed to set up even a single use character within the narrative one-shot players are a lot of work for not that much gain.

The only other issue I see is in framing the recollections of the single characters so that they are believable one-shots where it is both obvious and also understandable that they're never going to be seen again. There's a lot of ways to do that and I'm sure you have a framework in mind so as long as you can and do clearly delineate these bit players they should not cause any problems.

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Is this a bad idea? It would be odd for the protagonist to suddenly dwell upon those past events himself,

Yes, I think this is a bad idea. Non-POV characters that come and go are foils for the MC (POV character) somebody in their world to interact with, to reveal new information, make a social setting plausible, cause the MC to do something, provide a bit of help.

ANY POV character should be central to the story, not a convenient side show. Even if you could make it clear the new POV character is not going to reappear, this looks "too convenient" to the reader. For one, the new POV character is a complete stranger to the reader, disconnected from everything that has gone before: A stranger knocks on the door, explains something crucial, and walks away forever. It doesn't fit; it's implausible and just like a dues ex machina.

1) I would devise a scene in which a walk-on character (not POV character) more naturally reminds the MC of something that causes the MC to reflect on these incidents, so it does make sense.

2) Or make the incident bigger, involving more people perhaps, or make it more newsworthy, so reminders occur more naturally. Something new about the incident is in the news. A walk-on contacts the MC to find out if they know something -- No, but it is an excuse to talk about the incident.

3) Or my favorite: Don't explain. If the MC has no reason to think about how their story and the other stories are tied together, and the other POV characters have no reason to think about that, then how they met does not matter. By "matter" I mean it does not really make any difference in the plot or how they act; because if it did make a difference in some decision or action or emotion, that is the opportunity for the author to explain why a character is doing something based on how they met, or their past interactions, etc.

Otherwise, many stories are written about married couples without explaining how they met and got married, say a story about them dealing with the illness of their child.

An author should not include incidents (or go to these kinds of lengths to include incidents) that make no real difference in how the story in this book will progress. If they do matter, rethink the ACT I (first 30% of the story) scenes, minor problems and issues and walk-on characters, where the MC is introduced, to allow reflection or reminiscing on the memories of these past relevant actions.

You don't have to be blatant about this: Something causes the MC to be stumbling about in the dark in their apartment. The power went out, it is overcast and pitch black, they are searching for the flashlight on the mantle and accidentally knock something off with a sound of shattered glass. Great. The flashlight is found, the broken picture is of the MC and three friends at summer camp, a favorite. Fortunately the photo itself is undamaged. While the MC, by flashlight, is picking up sharp shards of glass, they are thinking on the adventures of that summer, Jill's stupid idea to build a secret raft ...

In ACT I, such "minor problems" serve to introduce our MC and provide reasons for character building, and these minor problems can be plausible, solved and dismissed without the reader expecting them to be truly related to the plot. Such minor problems are an excuse to build character, either in how they deal with problems (Are they inventive? Had they planned ahead?) or as an excuse to do something unusual; like take a different route to work or do something out of the ordinary that builds their character, call a friend, look in the attic for something, stop at a shop they haven't been in before and happen to meet somebody new, etc.

Invent some reason for your MC to reminisce or meet somebody from back in the day. Heck, they get an online friend request from somebody back when.

I would not introduce a stranger that walks on stage, dumps some info, and walks off never to be seen again.

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This is an artificial technique, one that will strain suspension of disbelief. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, if you aren't seeking to tell a naturalistic story. It's like a documentary, or a reality show, or a dramatic recreation, where they occasionally interview someone who talks directly to the camera about the action taking place on screen.

Be aware, however, it will stick out like a sore thumb to some readers. I personally tend to hate changes in POV because it breaks my immersion. But, as with any tool in the writer's toolbox, it's all in how you use it.

There are times you may actually want to call attention to the artifice of your narrative. You just need to be aware that is what you are doing, and make sure it matches your overall aims.

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