Imagine that you've recently moved to a new town and have only made one friend so far. For lunch one day, your new friend offers to take you out to a restaurant with five of her other friends so you can begin meeting new people. When you arrive, your friend introduces you to everyone else at the table. She gives their names, how she met each one of them, and how long she's known them. You struggle to follow her introductions, hoping that you'll be able to somehow remember all of these new names, faces, and details. Wouldn't it be a lot easier meeting only a few people at a time in a memorable way rather than several people in a group?
For some reason, many authors love to introduce these "new friends" in a group. They assume that just because they know all of their characters then the reader will automatically know who they are also, and will remember them throughout the story - not just remember who they are, but also what they look like, their names, and how these supporting characters met and relate to the main character. In the first chapter of many novels that I read, the author gives a full-out detailed description of each "friend" of the main character. There are usually about five of these SC's (supporting characters). I find myself skimming over this part, hoping that eventually I will find out who they are myself without the author having to tell me right at the beginning of the story. At this point, I barely even know much about the main character, so when I "meet" the others they blend together in the back of my mind and don't come across to me as unique. This is also another form of telling instead of showing and gets in the way of the action of the story.
Isn't it much more memorable when you meet characters through an interesting incident that highlights their personality? How is it possible to do this in a way that doesn't get confusing to the reader?
Let's say that two of your characters are Jade and Kim. They have been best friends with your main character (MC) since junior high. Jade is really artsy and sort of a ditz. Kim, however, is very intellectual, neat, and organized. There are three main ways you can "show" these characters without having to introduce them:
- Setting. Place them in an atmosphere that will "prove" your SC's personality.
In the situation above, you could have MC, Jade, and Kim in a pottery class. The way they respond to this setting will highlight who they are. The reader will learn that Jade is artsy and ditzy by the way she's so enthusiastic about the pottery, but keeps making silly mistakes. Kim is taking her time and carefully designs the pottery - although it's really difficult for her to do this, considering she's not artsy.
- Dialogue. This is probably the best way to show who they are and how they met your MC (if it's even necessary to include those details).
Maybe during the class, you could have them bring up times in middle school when they were in art class together. Now the reader knows that they have all been friends for a while. You could also show their personality by the way they talk. Kim can mention how much she doesn't like art and that she doesn't know why she always lets her two friends convince her to go to class with them. Jade, on the other hand, could keep giggling, ignoring her friend's sincere remarks as she continues to sculpt intently, reminding them how much fun they're all having.
- Appearance. The way someone dresses is how they express themselves, therefore it's a great way to "show" a character.
Usually the description of a character's appearance is at the beginning of an "introduction". However, try not to go on forever about the way they look. Only show a few details that will really bring out SC's personality. For example, Jade could be wearing eclectic clothing, colorful dangling earrings and about a thousand bracelets that don't go well with the outfit that she wears. Kim could wear conservative clothing, glasses and have her hair pulled back neatly into a bun. The reader gains automatic insight just by showing their appearance at the beginning of an "introduction".
Of course, there will be more supporting characters that you will have to introduce - but now the reader has met Kim and Jade in a memorable way, and their personalities will stick with the reader throughout the story.
If it is necessary that you introduce a "group" of your supporting characters to the reader at the same time, at least try to make it memorable. Make sure that each character is unique in the way they act, dress, talk, and even the way their name fits their personality.
*Remember: Just because you know your characters, doesn't necessary mean your reader does, too.
Have you ever been introduced to characters in a large group right at the beginning? Was it a little difficult to remember who each person was later on? What are some other ways you think would be helpful in developing supporting characters instead of shoving the details and introducing them all at the same time?