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So, I have a novel idea where the lead characters (seven in total), all have to be introduced in the first scene in my novel. I've already started with a basic idea, but I wanted to know if anyone else out there has done it, and if so, how do you do it so the reader is not bogged down with all the details of a character? I don't want the reader to be overwhelmed by these characters.

  • Seven is not too many. Many books introduce even a bigger number of characters in the first chapter. One caveat is that most of them are typically supporting ones and are not given a full introduction right away. – Alexander Nov 2 '18 at 21:27
  • Thanks, Alex. However, all seven play an equal part in the story. – Kale Slade Nov 3 '18 at 3:25
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The easiest solution is to split up the introduction. If it's possible at all, have the MC share a scene with one or two characters, then with two or three others, and so on until you've introduced them all. It can also be helpful to mention a character not present in the scene, before he is properly introduced. Then, when we meet the character, we already know something about them, so it's easier to remember this character as distinct from the others. For example, in Daughter of the Forest, an adaptation of The Wild Swans, Juliet Marillier introduces the MC's six brothers a few at a time, in scenes that accentuate their most prominent character traits. This way, the readers are not confused between them in the story that follows.

If it is absolutely necessary to introduce all seven characters at once, I would highly recommend you give each of them some prominent trait, and reiterate it, along with the character's name, each time the character acts in the first few scenes - until the readers learn to recognise them. If one of the characters is old, have him continually stroke his white beard. If one has large blue eyes, have her bat them, open them wide, etc. If one has a title, e.g. 'Admiral', use that. Make each character as different as possible from the others, give each some trademark, whether it's appearance, or a way of speaking, or something else. (That's not necessarily a bad idea even if you're not introducing everyone at the same time. J.K. Rowling is notorious for giving each character a trademark appearance. Red hair - Weasley. Bushy hair - Hermione. Greasy black hair - Snape.)

A third solution is to leave the reader deliberately confused. Remember the famous beginning of The Hobbit, where 13 dwarves all appear at Bilbo's doorstep?

Bilbo rushed along the passage, very angry, and altogether bewildered and bewuthered - this was the most awkward Wednesday he ever remembered. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 1 - An Unexpected Party)

By the end of that chapter, most readers would find themselves slightly "bewildered and bewuthered", just like Bilbo. Thorin is immediately set apart by the narration as the leader, but the other dwarves - it is safe to say that they are a jumble of names, whom the readers would get to know better as the story progresses. Since the reader is in the same situation as the MC, the effect helps immersion.

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I have 25-30 "main characters," (feel free to quibble over the definition) and more supporting ones, though of course only a few are really central. Two of the main 5 characters I don't even introduce until the 4th chapter, and it's quick and not very deep. That comes later.

No one is going to remember early descriptions of more than a couple characters, so there's no point in giving it all too soon. Start with 1 or 2, get more details about the rest later, as it's needed.

There's also something nice about feeling immersed in a large group of people and not feeling like you have to memorize everything. I don't want to know which ones are the important ones straight away, along with an info-dump. I'd rather get info for the 3rd and 4th characters later, after I feel like I know characters 1 and 2.

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I have noticed that when an author introduces a large amount of characters, those characters are given really quick descriptions and then move onto the next character. If you are writing from multiple perspectives then try to get some characters, after you've introduced them, that is, and have the different POV fully describe them. IF you don't have multiple POV's, then you could have the character suddenly realize a certain part of their appearance and then have them take a deeper look into what they look like. I realize that this might not help, but also try and space it out through the scene, and introduce two characters, some dialogue between them, then perhaps another three characters, some more characterization, and then maybe the final two characters, this way you can space out the descriptions and maybe let the reader get to know them a little better, and not just throw a lot of information at them and expecting them to catch it all. You might even make this a possible way to foreshadow an event for later in the story, maybe in the way they act and speak.

  • Thank you very much! I'll definitely use this when editing my manuscript! – Kale Slade Nov 2 '18 at 19:16
  • You are welcome! I wouldn't be able to tell you this without understanding your question so a lot of the work was done by you, I just answered the question. I really liked your question, though. – INR Nov 2 '18 at 19:23
  • Well, if I don't make sure people understand my question, I'll get unneeded info, and I don't want to waste anyone's time. – Kale Slade Nov 2 '18 at 20:05
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Perhaps they don’t have to be truly introduced en masse in the first scene. They are together for a reason, perhaps forming a team of sorts who must set out on a quest, mission etc and you start with the leader, introducing others as the need arises.

An example would be a squad in the military, you would meet one or two, then get to know the rest as seems natural.

In War and Peace, we are introduced to many characters and get to observe them in normal social settings, learning who is who.

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This is a great question and shows that you are thinking about your reader. Too many details (or characters) at the beginning can confuse the reader about what and who the story is actually about.

Three Possible Ways Forward

First consider how we might solve this from a more abstract standpoint. For example, how might we break down the scenes. You really have three main choices (which contain different challenges) for beginning your story.

  1. All characters are in the same scene and you move between them
  2. Snippet scenes (vignettes) which quickly introduce each character (but the characters don't necessarily interact).
  3. A hybrid of those two -- many or all characters interact in one scene but each vignette is told from a different character's POV (Point of View).

Knowing which one of those you want to choose will do a lot to getting you more focused on how you want to solve the problem.

Challenges / Advantages of Each Method

The first method above is the one that many authors and writing instructors are talking about when they tell you to be careful introducing numerous characters in one scene. It can be done, but it can be very difficult.

Why Is It Difficult? The main reason is due to the Reader's Experience. Most modern fiction (and most of the best modern fiction) will take on on character's viewpoint (known as Viewpoint Character) for a scene and stick with it. Readers expect this and it provides a way for the reader to know "whose story this is", which is very important for readers.

Challenges of Switching Viewpoints

It can be done however, if you use some specific way to switch between characters that is obvious to the reader. Otherwise all the jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint will confuse the reader.
Confused readers feel less intelligent and when people feel unintelligent or confused by authors they tend to get annoyed and stop reading.

Character Vignettes Can Be Satisfying To Readers

With media of all types be sped up, Vignettes (short scene snippets introducing characters) can be very satisfying for readers and it solves the difficulty of jumping around and confusing the reader about who they should be following.

Write In Scenes, Because Readers Like To Read In Scenes Everyone loves a point. A scene should provide a point : a character who wants a goal and is in conflict with something or someone to achieve that goal. If you write scenes like that readers are going to love your writing because something is always happening and they are being pulled into your story.

You can do that with these vignettes.

John walked through the door and into the ballroom. He bit his lip and scanned the crowd looking for her. Did she show? Did she come with Mike? He bumped into someone. "I'm sorry," he said, hardly looking at the woman.

The woman smiled, "You can bump into me any time, sailor."

"Wha...?" John said. "I'm not a sail.."

He looked at the lady standing in front of him in the red dress and smiled. "Would you like to dance?"

"Uh, sure, what's your name, sailor," she held out her hand. "I'm Sofia."

He took her hand and shook it. "I'm John." He scanned the room again.

"You seem a bit distracted. Looking for someone," she asked.

             *-*-*-*

Sofia stood in the ballroom sipping her drink and watching the door. He was already 30 minutes late. Whatever. His loss. The door opened and she looked up, Now, here comes a prime piece of real estate. The man's tuxedo fit him perfectly and she could tell it was custom tailored.

That's not the greatest sample, but just trying to show how you can introduce characters quickly with these vignettes.

Normally instead of the horizontal rule there will be five asterisks or something simple just to show the character viewpoint is about to change.

It's really as simple as that once you break down the high level way you want to move into the story.

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You can associate your character with something else, thats easier to remember. For 7 you could use the 7 colours of the rainbow or the 7 weekdays. This is only appropriate for some storys though ,probably fantasy. Because the characters are either linked by destiny or some organization or a preordained plan, or because they all found connected artifacts...

As said, not applicable to all Storys, but when you say "they have to be introduced in the first chapter", I get that feeling. Then you have the advantage that you "introduced" all of them, but you don't have to reveal anything about them if you don't want.

  • Only problem is that all my characters are all slaves (and master) so...they were all bought in a lump transaction. – Kale Slade May 18 at 12:37

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