How do readers latch on to characters?
When a reader begins a book, she has no idea which characters are important, and which are there to smooth we way into the story, but will never be seen again. She will file every character with the same diligence until she can figure out how important they are to the story. Here are some things that authors can do to help the reader find her way.
Introduce the character in media res; that is, smack dab in the middle of doing something doing something with a high physical and/or emotional content.
Give each character a unique name, so that the total character list contains a mixture of sounds, number of syllables, and ethnic origins.
Limit the number of names and titles referring to one character. For example, a character named William Smith, should not be referred to as William, Bill, Billy, Willy, Willy-Boy, Mr. Smith, the Boss, and Old Red-Face by different characters.
If there is more than one character sharing the same descriptive title—several doctors, or priests, or detectives—give each character a unique character sketch so that Father Jones won’t be confused with Father Rafael or Father Whitcombe.
Give each character unique ways of relating to the physical world. This includes their physical description, clothes, food, living spaces, possessions, and their relationship to each of these.
Unless dealing with a turning point, where a previously unknown connection between two characters is revealed—for example, when detective learns that a suspect’s maiden name is the same as the first murder victim last name—make it clear immediately how characters with the same last name are related, or if using name confusion as a plot device, that they are not related but frequently confused.
If the author introduces minor characters in the first three chapters, the reader will be disappointed if that character doesn’t play a major part in the story. The exception is background characters who make the first three chapters flow: the doorman who opens the car door for the heroine or the dry cleaner who has ruined her best dress, etc. can be used to set events in motion, but they should be mentioned only in passing. The more details the reader learns—that the dry cleaner is named Moe, he’s fifty-five years old, he lives over the shop, and he speaks with a New York accent, etc.—the more the reader expects Moe to play a major part in the story. A summary like, “On Tuesday, the dry cleaner ruined my best dress.” will cover what’s needed to move along.
A character doesn’t usually gel with a reader until they have been seen at least three times, in three different roles or relationships. It’s important to gel all major characters with the reader as soon as possible. There is no hard rule about this, but as a general guideline, all of the major characters should be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind by the end of chapter three. The only exception is the detective(s); it’s hard to have him show up before the first body is discovered. But then, there are endless discussions about needing a body by the end of chapter three as well.
If there is a need to hold a character in reserve past the first three chapters, at least make a general reference to them. When the heroine says, “The guys who really piss me off are the ones in the five-hundred-dollar suits, with the look-at-me attitudes” that sets the reader up to expect a man, a suit, and an attitude to show up.
Writing quotes for the week
The author contracts with the reader to provide an ah-ha moment where they recognize the character as someone they know in real life. ~Bouchercon 2003 panel
Give your reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there, before you yank them out and pull them into another mind. ~Beth Anderson, mystery and romance writer
Choose names very carefully. Pay attention to the meaning and the sound, and to connotations that people will give a name.
~Elizabeth George, mystery writer