How best to handle introducing new characters, new stories, and readers to one another? Well, my preference both as a writer and a reader is to get a sense of them, but not necessarily learn everything about them all up front at once. It’s a slow dance, a tease, a little here, a little there, and you get to know them, just like you do in real life. When you are introduced to a person in front of you, you might get their full name, or you might not. There’s formal introductions: “may I present Princess Hildegard of Aronia to you, Grand Duchess of Rexington?” and then there is: “so this is Joe, my plumber. He’s pretty good, if’n you don’t want it done fast.” With a wink and an elbow nudge.
Both of those situations tell you much more than the number of words I used to relay them to you. One implies a formal setting, perhaps a glittering ballroom, elegant clothes, immaculate grooming… the other is a couple of guys standing around in stained shirts, possibly beers in hand, a nametag on someone’s chest. Introductions don’t just give you a name, they can also set a world up around the person being introduced. It doesn’t need a full biography… which is good, because the writer might not know yet where the character comes from, what motivates them, and what’s going to happen next that the reader needs to be clued in on as well. That last can be walked back with editing at the end, but if you pants the way I do, when it starts rolling out, you’re stuck with what is in the head.
Like the story below, which I started musing on while driving, wrote down a bit of, and I know a bit more. But I didn’t know where the first character came from, or why, or if she’s scared and running, or what from… and the second character I didn’t realize lives in fearful respect of his wife until I’d written him a bit. I like him… I wonder what else he’s got hidden in there. Finally, the character I haven’t yet written is his daughter, who shares
some many of his traits, to both her parent’s dismay. The dragon, the king, and the princess.
The dragon flying out of the morning’s sunrise was already exhausted. Her wings were strained and each upstroke felt like fire up her neck and down past the base of her tail. Wi’ilmaiyaa of the Akureyri (Just call me Wilma, dangit) had reached the end of her abilities. If she dared further, she would plummet from the skies. Tears rolled down her scaled cheeks and fell unchecked into the low-lying clouds beneath her. In the proper conditions, given some time, they would have become the stone humans called moonstone, as they contained many minerals. Falling through water, they dissipated into nothingness, valueless and forgotten. Wilma’s people were chemotrophic, their every fluid and fiber based on inorganic materials. But a literal heart of stone – asbestos fiber that functioned like myosin and actin did on an organic framework – couldn’t beat forever, and hers was about to burst. She folded her wings tight to her backbone and plunged into the clouds.
Arnbjorg sat on the tall stool and hunched over the table in front of him. It was strewn with paper and parchments, and he had ink on his best sword callus. He regarded the stained finger ruefully. If he’d had any idea what kingship would mean, he’d have turned it down flat. But at the time, standing there panting in the sunshine, the hot fire of a battle rushing through his veins and making him feel like he was invincible, he’d just bent his head and accepted the slightly dented (they really had done a stellar job beating out the worst of the bludgeon marks) and somewhat bloody gold circlet without demur. Now? He tilted his head slightly and listened. That wasn’t his daughters calling out in play… He stood up, ignoring the stool clattering to the stone floor behind him, and reached for the great sword that hung by the door in its sheath. Clutching it in his hand, he raced for the castle stairs.
In the courtyard of his keep, the king joined the gaggle of his people that had gathered around a single man. The shepherd, to judge from his garb, was gesticulating wildly.
“It fell out of the sky! And hit the hillside so hard it buried itself! The cloud of dust went up like smoke!” His eyes rolled back in his head, and he swayed.
“Calm yourself.” The king deliberately lowered his voice to a rumble. He stepped through the ring of people and stood facing the hysteric, his sword still in his hand, but now hanging by his side rather than ready to draw. “What fell?”
“I… I don’t know.” The man stammered. “I was…” He pointed to the hills above the keep. Castle really was too grandiose for this place, Arnbjorg thought for the umpteenth time. “With my flock.” He added unnecessarily. “Been out since early, but it was ver’ foggy.”
“So you aren’t sure where exactly you were?” The king prodded. He was tempted to pull the sword and add some physical prodding, as this idiot was trying his patience.
“No, no…I was in Old Peter, the Peter that was the wolf-killer, in ‘is pasture. T’isn’t a real pasture y’understand, just it’s all smooth and neat-like in the rocks up by Rocky Top there.” On familiar ground now, the shepherd regained his equilibrium.
Arnbjorg translated this flow of local lore. “So you were on high ground.”
“Aye.” The man nodded vigorously. “Best grazin’ this time o’ year.”
“Can you take us there?” The king asked, starting to buckle his sword on. He glanced back toward the castle door, but he still didn’t see his wife. If she saw him… He shivered a little at the thought of the screeching about his health and safety. “Quickly now, man!” He wasn’t running away. He was running toward a potential threat to the people’s safety, that was the ticket.
If you want more stories introducing characters, check out this list of readable books over at my blog today. A group of likely looking tales, promising some very interesting endings.