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Would you consider it too late to introduce major characters at the midpoint of book 1 in a trilogy?

By major characters I mean characters that aren’t the protagonist, don’t have POV chapters (my book is first person), but are with the protagonist for the majority of the trilogy and are essential to the main storyline.

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    I once read a fiction series where the books introduce a major plot twist in the last chapter. I followed it for 3 books and got so fed up with the stupidity of the hook and resulting cliff hanger that I dropped the entire series and author completely. Went online, looked at reviews, and apparently all their books are like that, so yeah... don't do it in a way that upsets a reader with incomplete story telling.
    – Nelson
    Jul 27, 2022 at 2:48
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    Agatha Christie introduced (or rather brought in, since he had 'existed' as a character quite a while) Hercule Perot rather late in "Cat Among the Pigeons", probably as a rescue device, and to aid sales. Jul 27, 2022 at 13:25
  • Of course when it comes to real life we'll see major characters come and go at the strangest of times. We make due. In a story part of the joy is getting to know the characters, so too late can detract from the central goal of the entertainment. Trilogies of movies or stories that are released over time naturally tend towards the recurrent characters... because they're the reliable ones, what brought the success, what the audience got into, and adding characters can add unnecessary complexity. Though they're often introduced to take the characters to the next level (as antagonist or sage) Jul 27, 2022 at 21:46
  • Also... key characters die/have surprises happen in major moments in stories. So often naturally there's a gap to fill, unless the characters/story can take it. People mentioning Yoda could argue he replaces Obi Wan in a sense (in the original trilogy). Hopefully you can avoid the tv show theme of: major character dies/leaves... here's a randomly-scrabbled-together new character you need to support immediately. It's the nature of contracts and life over time... but I think most people have great entertainment when the story has some cohesion (there is the ultimate inverse: soap operas) Jul 27, 2022 at 21:51
  • You might check out The Lord of the Rings. Several important characters are introduced almost exactly halfway through the first volume. Jul 28, 2022 at 20:39

6 Answers 6

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A trilogy is basically a three act story, and the first book is basically the first act.

So no; the middle of the first act is not too late.

I have written a story in which a major character is introduced in person in the third act, but that character is a celebrity in the world, has a personal connection to the protagonist (he saved her mother), and thus is mentioned multiple times including in the first quarter of the first act.

If it is possible, you might want to make reference to your late-arriving character, or at least the role you need them to play, so the late arrival does not appear out of nowhere.

In my case my protagonist, because she is the only one with even a thin personal connection to the celebrity, is chosen as an emissary to persuade him to intervene in her team's dire situation. He does provide aid and that is the key to her problem being solved.

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    Do Yoda and Treebeard count as major characters? They don't get introduced until the second books of their respective trilogies. Jul 26, 2022 at 5:40
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    @ArcanistLupus I don't think they do. In the first Star Wars trilogy, Yoda is minor character. Compelling, but really just the "Wise Teacher". Yoda is is not involved in the conclusion of the first three movies. That is not a major role. I cannot speak as well for Treebeard, I don't know the story that well.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 26, 2022 at 9:58
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    @ArcanistLupus Treebeard definitely isn't a character who's “with the protagonist for the majority of the trilogy”. But then, neither is Aragorn, or Gandalf! Jul 26, 2022 at 11:27
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    Emperor Palpatine in the original Star Wars trilogy wasn't really a character until the 3rd movie. (Barring a brief, uncredited appearance in the 2nd.) Sauron is the main villain in the LotR series, but he's never seen in person (at least in the books - they added a short flashback in the films). Voldemort doesn't appear in person until book 4 of 7 in the Harry Potter series, and they don't even like saying his name much before that. This might be more common with villains than protagonists, though, to give them an air of mysterious menace. Jul 26, 2022 at 13:44
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    See also Will in His Dark Materials, introduced in the opening scenes of the second book in the trilogy.
    – TRiG
    Jul 26, 2022 at 16:57
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Have you ever watched Avatar: The Last Airbender?

Toph, one of the cornerstone characters of the franchise, does not get introduced until Book Two Episode Six.

She didn't exist for the whole first season of the story and now she's a fan favorite. How did the writers do this? 1-By foreshadowing her appearance by giving the main character a vision. 2-By giving her a great introductory episode.

Her first appearance pretty much says everything we need to know about her character. The gang takes a trip to an underground fighting earth-bending ring where a character called The Boulder is destroying everyone. Then this little girl shows up, shows she's a thousand times more talented than him, and wins the prize belt without even breaking a sweat.

It's not about when you introduce your character as much as it's about how you introduce them.

Make a strong impression, keep the character consistent, and you just might write a character as compelling as Toph.

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    Another example: Azula has an easter egg appearance in Book One, but she isn't properly introduced until Book Two. She's widely regarded as a great villain and foil to Zuko.
    – Kevin
    Jul 26, 2022 at 16:00
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    I would argue that introducing major characters in later books of a series cannot be considered "early" or "late" when looking at the whole series. Each "book" or "season" should be looked at independently. Denethor and Shelob are important characters and there's 100s of pages of LoTR before either appears. If you want to stretch things a bit, the Mouth of Sauron also appears very, very late even when considering only RoTK. Jul 27, 2022 at 14:08
  • I think this answer is true most but not all of the time. I personally suffer from too many new characters fatigue when a writer goes crazy with making new characters. Even if every one of them were introduced as good as Toph was, it's too much. The more sparingly this answer's technique is used, the stronger the impact. Jul 27, 2022 at 16:16
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There is really no firm way to answer this without knowing what format you are writing. Generally, a character enters the plot when the plot requires them. Genre fiction will normally at least introduce main characters early on, within the first few pages. For example, Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has the Wizard in the title and he is mentioned many times throughout the story, but he does nothing at all and has no actual appearance until the very end of the book. All the other main characters - the Tinman, Scarecrow, and Lion - are actively engaging the plot by chapter 4. With Genre fiction you generally want to keep the story building up momentum. Introducing a new major character will shift our focus, and it runs the risk of ruining all the momentum you just built up.

By contrast, Literary fiction essentially has no rules governing the structure or plot development, so you need to just keep the plotline moving forward purposefully.

A relatively new genre called magical realism sort of breaks all these rules and has almost no formal structure. The stories can jar you by killing the protagonist in the middle of the novel, having them get marriend and retire, or suddenly have a new protagonist take the stage. The story can put major changes pretty much anywhere without hurting the flow.

When is too late?

It is too late to introduce a character when you don't have enough time to build the reader's interest in them. If it is a character you want the audience to attach to, then they should spend a couple chapters getting filled out; developing their relationship with the protagonist. This is true whether they are the good guy or bad guy. You need to make us understand why we care about this character. They are a main character, so they are either important to meeting the protagonist's goals, or interfering with those goals. In either case, if the reader can't relate to why the plot needs this character, then you didn't spend enough time developing them. You need to introduce them earlier.

This is a good question for your test readers. "Did you understand why 'Bob/Sue' was important in this story?" If they don't see a need for the character, then you either don't need the character or you didn't give them enough time.

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It's too late when they don't have time to do anything else. The Hollywood "superhero movie" genre has a tendency to introduce new characters in the last seconds of the movie itself. Sometimes it's a promise of a new arch, sometimes it's about a linked story (albeit loosely) or a foreshadowing of what/who is to come. But it only works when the next movie of the genre is close...and it has been overused. For the work that just ends when a new character is introduced, and it's meant to be "central" to the action , this late apparition is more of a disruption. The plot resolves almost by a unconnected agent that shows up just to close the story- that is forced and somehow demands a continuation. Ending the work like that and NOT presenting a continuation of some sort is a form of sadism, while presenting one too late or too shallow leaves the reader disappointed. For quality works- something that "superhero movies" are generally NOT- a forced continuation/ promise of revealing why the "main character" appears in the last seconds of the movie is tolerable and became a trope of the genre.

Another extreme and somewhat specific case is teenage fiction presented as short animated series or even graphic novels or "manga" as they are called. These sometimes come as formulaic as can be, trope after trope, the only original points being character design and quirks but generally following typical "plot formulae" to the letter. Here sometimes as a move meant to disrupt the archetypal construction, we have main characters that appear late, just like the Wizard of Oz, characters from the shadow that everyone talks about but no one knows, or even (main!) characters that die right in the middle of the action and then their role is simply taken by a new or existing character. Mainly in Chinese works this debases the main character's value. The work is original because the invested feelings of the reader are trampled when the "main character" is revealed to be for all intents and purposes a normal person that just happened to be central to the story up to one point, but "life goes on without them" just fine and in fact this is beautifully illustrated by having all the story continue with someone else filling in the role of hero, adventurer, protagonist or so on.

I discuss such "works" here because I see these tendencies pass into mainstream literature and film-making and, at least to me, they appear to violate some tenets of good story-writing, as : don't write "story of X" while having X appear on the last page, unless they are present-by-absence - in other people's stories, by past actions /consequences, etc, a sort of "present absence"; second one: stories like " and that's how I met your mother" - beginning well too early or unrelated and somehow drawing impossible tangents and spanning long periods of time are overused; the "cloud atlas" thing was, bad or good, written once, and don't re-do it...don't kill X at the beginning of the story of X and have the story continue from collected memories of selected characters, don't break the story in two and begin with the middle, faking the omniscient narrator perspective: look, this is X, and he's hanging for dear life on the tail of a shark.. now let's see how X got here, but first, let me tell you who X is and why do we care..and then after the movie's basically done, get to the start sequence, stupidly and quickly explain the situation and solve it in seconds, the end- no, that is not good either.

So long story short- a "main" character is a main character for a reason.He/She/It must do something important for the story, and not only for the end, we must follow this character through the story and have the narrative make us care about them. Otherwise I will throw again a good Hollywood example: massive battle movies, like those following historic battles of the Roman empire for example- they do look at the leaders, at remarkable heroes, etc but nobody cares about soldier # 321 from the tenth row of can't remember what auxiliary unit that has seen Caesar on a sunny day in a certain month of May.In fact, nobody cares about the collective character " the X-th cohort" unless it is paramount to the action.But if you were to write a novel with 1000 main characters, each soldier in that cohort, describe their movements and what happened from their perspective...Original but after a while everyone confuses soldier #321 with soldier #500 because...nothing much sets them apart and are given equal weight and they're so many..and they kinda all do the same thing at the same time so what is the main character doing. Wait, who is the main character? And then let's say you decide to introduce Caesar that happens to pass by and personally take command briefly before the battle ends. Too little too late- and although he would have made a good main character, he isn't, not from a reader's POV.

So write main characters so that they are interesting, worth investing feelings into, worth remembering and following. They therefore must be individualized, not too many, present for a significant portion of the story so that it makes sense to call them "main character", and try and avoid tropes like Chekhov's Gun,the Wizard of Oz,"this is how I met your mother" , Story of hero X (where the hero X is long gone and everyone just remembers him/her),and that insidious meme of "anyone can be a protagonist/ the protagonist dies mid-action AND NOTHING STRANGE HAPPENS" - or "life as usual". These have been massively over-used and bring about unwanted comparisons and debasing to other nice ideas that may be written in. So no "too late for action" main characters,no " 1001 main characters and each replaceable/interchangeable" , no "disposable heroes" that really get done in really early on with no consequences, no " best in the world until X happens"/ cheap redemption stories with the character changing so totally and abruptly that the story would better be given to two separate characters...unless a fully explainable story of transformation takes place.

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Star Wars

Going by date of release rather than in-world chronology, several major Star Wars characters were not present in the first volume but became major characters and are recognized as such today:

  • Yoda is not mentioned at all in Star Wars (1977), but became a major character, appearing in six of the other eight mainline films and many secondary works.
  • Palpatine is given only a brief side mention in Star Wars (1977) as a faceless, nameless, abstract "emperor" who just dissolved the Senate. He is seen briefly as a hologram in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and becomes a major character after that, appearing in all of the prequels as well as The Rise of Skywalker.
  • Lando Calrissian, while perhaps not quite qualifying as a major character, does not appear until the latter half of the second installment of 1980.
  • All of Jabba the Hutt's scenes in the original Star Wars (1977) were deleted prior to release (only being restored through new CGI footage 20 years later), with only verbal mentions remaining. We know that he's a gangster that Han Solo used to work for, but we don't really know him as a person (or a space slug or whatever). The second installment likewise only makes verbal mentions, with the character appearing "in the flesh" only in the third installment (that is, until the character was retrospectively inserted into a new edition of the first installment).
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For me, it comes down to the arcing characters. (i.e. characters with change or challenges—for flat arcs).

If the arc can be finished in one chapter, nobody, especially the reader will be particularly impressed. That would likely be a low-risk change or an oversimplified one.

Books should be exciting. One way to make them exciting is to create character arcs that are so hard and complex the reader fears the character will never be able to change.

That usually takes time. And pages.

So changing/arcing characters need to be introduced early and kept until late.

Non-arcing major characters should be in the story either as an example of what the changing characters risk becoming if they fail their change or as a promise of what they could become if they succeed. Or of course to assist or, most commonly, prevent the change.

So even the major characters without change need to be around from early on in order to assist with the arcing of the changing characters.

However, if the late entry of the character still works with respect to change, it may still be ok. Unless the character represents some kind of a deus ex machina or other types of problematic problem-solving...

I also wonder, if the character is a major character and the story suggests it should enter only at the mid-point, is it possible that you have done too much preamble and the story might actually be better off if it started around the mid-point?

Or the reverse; maybe you should expand the first half and make a book of it and move the second half, and the major character to the next book?

Or, if the character sees fit to be this tardy, maybe they shouldn't be a major character at all? Why is the character so late? Why are they still vital to the story? Should they be this late or could you introduce them earlier? Maybe through parallel plotlines or timelines, or simply by having them appear earlier? Could you move the character's responsibilities with respect to the story/character arc to another character that is in time and cut the character completely or at least limit their role?

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