Introducing New Characters: when?

by Kathleen Day
(Nevada, Missouri, USA)

Question: I have been told that my self-discovery travel romance novel has too many characters the first chapter. The protagonist is alone for the first 2 pages (she asks directions from a stranger who ignores her), then meets a woman who will be her roommate on their cruise. Next, she asks directions from a group of dock workers on page 5 (none named or given character traits--well, the foreman is described). On page 7 she enters a terminal and finally gets some directions from a clerk to her ship. On the last chapter page, she sees the love interest (no dialogue yet). The chapter is 8.5 pages long. Too many characters (most of whom you never see again)?

Also, I've read that no new characters should be introduced in the last quarter of the book. Can I develop one met earlier without messing up the structure? Also, a character is introduced at the beginning of the last quarter, is onstage for 3 pages, then goes away.

I know we don't have to follow a formula to write fiction, but I'd like to follow a semblance of accepted structure.

Thank you so much for your site and generous help (I posted your link on FB).

Answer: Of course it makes a difference whether you are writing to a specific category of romance, in which case you have to defer to the formula. For instance, some romance lines want the two lovers to meet immediately, in which case the first chapter should be about how their relationship begins.

However, if I can assume you have a little more freedom, here are some things to consider...

It's important that the first chapter be about an event. That is, something happens that will change everything going forward, so that the reader needs to keep reading to find out what happens as a result.

From your summary above, I can see you have several possibilities.

1. Main Character Arc: You could open with the main character coping with a problem in her usual way, in order to reveal who she is when the story begins. This could be, for instance, her making a last minute decision to go on a cruise (why is it last minute?), or how she handles herself in a strange situation (does she take unnecessary risks, and does taking a risk have consequences?).

2. Impact Character Arc: You could open with the main character seeing the love interest for the first time and watching how he handles a tough problem in his usual way (which will, of course, be completely different from how she handles problems).

3. Relationship Arc: As above, you could establish their
relationship (which could be one of hostility as easily as attraction). You may want them to have a shared perspective or experience that sets them apart from other characters. And you might want to create a reason for them to interact later.

4. Overall Arc: If you have an overall plot, even if it's just a device to force the two lovers to interact, then you could begin that plot in the first chapter. (Cliched example: a spy slips a thumb drive full of stolen documents into the main character's handbag and the love interest, who is a good spy, sees it happen.)

5. Subplot: The meeting with the roommate sounds like the start of another relationship arc, assuming the roommate is a major character.

In many romances, which tend to have short chapters, each of these events could have a chapter all to itself. I suspect having the main character meet both the love interest and the roommate in the same chapter is the problem. The reader may not be certain which relationship she is supposed to get hooked on.

As for the minor characters (the stranger, the foreman, the clerk), be careful how much space you devote to describing them or establishing their personality. In the first chapter, readers will assume that any character who gets fully introduced must be important. They will be disappointed if they don't return later. Remember that, as the writer, you control the reader's attention. If these are really just background characters, make sure they stay in the background and don't pay too much attention to them. Put the focus on the important event that is taking place.

The reason people say not to introduce a character in the last act (last quarter) of a story is because it leaves very little time to develop a relationship between that character and anyone else. You could never, for example, introduce the love interest that late in a romance.

Besides, the crisis of the story comes just before the final act begins, so any character entering after that would be arriving too late to contribute to the rising tension (either external or internal).

However, an exception occurs when the force of a character is felt throughout the story, even if they are never seen. For instance, you could have a villain whom no one ever sees, but the aftermath of his actions is seen and characters react to these events. Or you could have a character who exerts an influence through messages. Or all the action could be building towards a meeting/confrontation with an off-stage character so that the reader needs to see this character appear near the end.

Hope that helps.

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