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I am currently writing a story about eleven college friends and a child.

I don't want to just introduce them as "The Jock" or "The Delinquent," and I don't want to do a dry listing of "this is who they are, this is how they look, and this how they act."

How can I introduce this large cast to the reader without being cliched, boring or perfunctory?

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    Hi Mai, welcome to Writers. Unfortunately, your question is very broad for this format and will probably be closed. We need specific questions here that deal with specific problems that have specific solutions. Your question is really asking for a short course on writing. One question for you, though. Why don't you want to be straightforward? It is generally pretty good writing advice to be as straightforward as you can. – user16226 Sep 26 '19 at 15:09
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    @MarkBaker I always believed that if you let the reader guess and assume things themselves, only giving them small bits and pieces, it draws them in more. I figured that that was the best way to approach it. Granted, I am not a professional writer, though I hope to be one day. Also, I apologize for the broad questions. How else would I have asked the question to make it more specific? – Mai Green Sep 26 '19 at 15:13
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    There is a difference between letting a reader feel things for themselves rather than being told what to feel, and simply hiding information from them. No one goes to an art gallery to view an incomplete jigsaw puzzle and guess what the rest of the picture is. They want to see the whole picture and experience the feeling it gives them. As a writer, you are creating an experience for the reader. Give the reader everything they need to immerse themselves completely in that experience, but leave it up to them to decide how to feel about the experience. – user16226 Sep 26 '19 at 15:19
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    Welcome to Writing.SE Mai Green, glad you found us. We have a tour and help center you might wish to check out. I have to agree the question is quite broad. It's because you're asking about a big concept: how to talk about characters. Your comment makes it clear you've thought about this. Maybe edit to include that information and ask a more narrow question about the part of this you aren't sure of. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 26 '19 at 15:32
  • This depends upon of story’s point of view and who is narrating the story. Are you the omniscient subjective narrator? If yes, then you can introduce your characters all at once. It can even sound like a list. The key here is your voice. Your story voice, if your good at it, keeps your story from sounding cliched, boring or perfunctory. Chris Sunami has excellent answer which in my opinion is best suited for a story where a character’s point of view is narrating the story, like first or third person point of view. – James Axsom Sep 27 '19 at 21:36
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First, understand what a character is in fiction. A character is not simply a person. A character is an instrument for making a story work. You can't simply sit down, dream up a bunch of people, and then expect to insert them into a story and have them work. Characters have to be designed to drive the story. Each character has a specific job to do in driving the story forward. Any characters that don't pull their weight in driving the story are superfluous and should be jettisoned.

What are the functions of the various characters? First, of course, there is the protagonist. They are the person that the story actually happens to. They are forced out of their comfortable existence by an event that forces them to go on some sort of journey to put something right. To put that something right they will have to make some choice of values that they really don't want to make. That is the crisis of the story. Once they make they choice, they have to prove that they have made it and see it through to the end. That is the denouement of the story.

So, your first character is the protagonist. They need to have a problem, and two values that will conflict with each other and between which they will have to choose in order to address the problem.

Then there is the antagonist. You don't have to have an antagonist, but they are frequently used. Their role is to make life difficult for the character. In many cases, it is their actions that create the problem that the protagonist has to solve. But the thing that creates the problem for the protagonist does not have to be another character. It can also be nature, or the protagonist themselves.

Then there are the supporting characters. What is their role? Fundamentally, their role is to see the protagonist along the road to facing their choice of values and solving (or not solving) the problem. Since the protagonist does not want to make the choice of values that occurs at the crisis (who would?), the job of the supporting characters is twofold:

  1. Support the protagonist in facing the choice and dealing with the consequences. This may mean giving them advice or fighting beside them.

  2. Prevent them from avoiding the choice. This means acting in opposition to them every time they try to wriggle out of the choice. It could mean distracting them. It could mean fighting them when they try to find a solution to the problem that does not require the choice they don't want to make. It could even mean encouraging them to abandon the quest -- but if they actually abandon it, then the story dies, so these characters actually end up leading the character back to the choice.

There are also tertiary characters who just fill in the scene or perform ordinary tasks like taking the protagonists drink order. They should be given a bit of color, just so they don't feel cardboardy, but they don't really matter much. One bartender, in this case, is as good an another. Unless they give the protagonist a vital pep talk or clue, in which case they are a secondary character.

Okay, so now you know what job each of your characters has. Does everyone on your list actually have a job to do? If not, it's pink slip time.

Okay, you are down to your actually useful cast. Now, when do you introduce them into the story and how? You do one of two things with them:

  1. You introduce them with they are needed to do their job.

  2. You introduce them earlier to foreshadow the role they are going to play.

When do you foreshadow them? You foreshadow them when it would seem contrived if you introduced them only when they were needed to do their job. For instance, you need a character with a rope to pull your protagonist out of quicksand. Well, if that character just turns up out of the blue right after your protagonist fall in quicksand, that is going to seem pretty contrived to the reader. So you introduce him and his rope earlier in the story so that when your protagonist falls in the quicksand, the reader goes, oh yes, guy with the rope, he will get our hero out of the quicksand.

So what happens in that scene in which the guy with the rope is foreshadowed. Simple: our hero does the guy with the rope a good turn, so that when our hero falls in quicksand, the guy with the rope owes him one. Thus the moral order of the story is maintained. This should happen far enough in advance of the quicksand incident that the reader does not immediately see what the writer is going, but not so far back that the reader has forgotten that the guy with the rope exists.

Every character is part of the moving parts that make a story run. Understand what part every character plays and when they need to appear in order to play their role in the story. Introduce them when it is their time. Not before. Not after. When you introduce them, tell us what we need to know about them so we will understand the role they play when they play it. Not more. Not less.

There is no part of your story whose function is to introduce characters just so you can use them later. Every entrance and every exit performs a specific role in the story. Understand what that role is, and you will know when and how to introduce them.

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Don't introduce them all at once --that's not a story, that's a cast list. Bring them in one at a time, or in small groups, when needed by the storyline, and describe them in ways that illuminate their importance to the protagonist and the narrative:

There, standing outside the door was Rachel. Her once flame-red hair was now tinged with gray. As I saw her there, looking so much older, that torch I'd carried for her all those years flickered and finally went out.

That's only a couple of lines, but it tells you a bit about Rachel's physical description and her history with the narrator --and something about the narrator as well. If you do it this way, you can introduce the characters without bringing the story to a screeching halt, and all the descriptions will be unique, because they won't be following some cookie-cutter format. Each person will be described in a way that stems from his or her unique relationship to the protagonist.

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Make them all participate in a game.

This can be any kind of a game - a recreational sports game (but no face masks please), a card game or a funny game at a party. Every participant should get in a spotlight, the spotlight can be moved quickly, and the gameplay hopefully should make the whole scene interesting rather than boring. As the game progresses, every player would get additional chance to get in a spotlight and have his or her character further developed.

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  • A while back, I was drafting a visual novel centred around a soccer team, and this is exactly what I did to introduce the (eighteen or so!) characters; the protagonist had them all gather in a circle, kicked the ball to each of them in turn, and had them briefly introduce themselves. It came out pretty lengthy, but it was the best way I could think of to introduce such a large cast in rapid succession. – F1Krazy Sep 27 '19 at 10:08
  • Would a knock off of spin-the-bottle be an interesting way? For example, whoever the bottle lands on, they do a brief introduction of themselves. Would this work? – Mai Green Sep 30 '19 at 14:23
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@CrisSunami is spot-on: don't introduce all your characters at once. Don't start with a scene where they are all present - start with a few characters, then bring in more. Having a great many unfamiliar characters all at once is extremely confusing to the reader: imagine walking into a room with 12 people you've never met before, and you're expected to remember their names, who they are, what kind of people they are, within 10 minutes of conversation. Oh, and you can't see any of them. It's going to be very hard for you, won't it?

You might find it helpful to watch the first episode of any series with a large cast, like Star Trek - Next Generation or Firefly. Note how the main character(s) are the ones you start with, while the others are slowly introduced as the episode progresses. The episode is almost contrived in how it's structured - there's whatever reason for the characters not to start together.

A literary example could be G.R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, a series notorious for having a great many characters. In the first chapter of A Game of Thrones we are introduced to the Stark family, but not to all the Starks. In what is almost a contrived coincidence, the first scene takes place away from Winterfell. We are told Lord Stark has five trueborn children, but in the first chapter we only meet Robb and Bran, plus Jon and Theon. In the second chapter we meet Catelyn, but still not the other Stark children. In the third chapter we jump to Daenerys, but do not yet meet Khal Drogo. We meet the characters a few at a time.

Even if your characters all share the same environment, the same living space, etc., split them up. Find a way to introduce them slowly, let the readers get to know two or three characters before you introduce the next two or three. That's the only way the readers will be able to take it all in.

It's great if you can do like @MarkBaker suggests - introduce each character when the plot demands their presence. But if the plot "demands" the introduction of too many characters at once, tweak the plot, add a scene, split up the character introductions.

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