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I'm pretty good at creating compelling characters with decent personalities and motivations. I like the comradery vibe, so they're generally already part of a posse of some sort at the beginning of my stories. However, I can only really think of two ways to introduce them to the reader, neither of which is smooth or interesting:

  • ... Bob asked Jerry to hand him the lug wrench. He dropped it from his flipper (because he was a walrus).
  • ... Jerry turned and looked at Bob, and thought of the time they'd met. Bob had just been a walrus pup then...

(Exaggerated for simplicity's sake.)

How can I smoothly introduce a whole cast of characters & their backgrounds/motivations/etc. within the flow of the story? They've been hanging out with each other for years, so there's no real reason for them to remark on each other's character traits.

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5 Answers 5

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There is no need for the characters to remark on each other's traits because your prose should be showing those traits as the story moves along. You already do some showing in He dropped it from his flipper. The same kind of showing can be used to illustrate an angry character:

The lug wrench clanged to the floor as Jerry dropped it from his flipper. Jerry's whiskers sank. Bob glared at Jerry and began shaking. "You," he enunciated, "never manage anything, now do you? Do you?"

There is also no need, when introducing a posse of characters, to introduce them in a group. Introduce your group naturally as your story moves along. One way to do this is have the characters in several scenes involving large groups. Victorian novels with their world-building focus, did this often. For example in The Age of Innocence Wharton starts in a crowded opera house, introducing characters as they look at each other across boxes and move into boxes to visit. Additional characters are introduced via Old New York gossips sharing tidbits about supposed shady dealings or at dinner parties as they naturally show up and are included in the circle.

A modern novel involving a close knit group is Then We Came to the End. Set in the first person plural, this novel about most people in an office being fired has a setting where it is natural for characters to ruminate on each other (who is going to be fired next?). It also shows - from it's unusual point of view - different people at different times, since it can jump into any member of the "we."

Your reader doesn't need to know all the pertinent details about the character right away. When a character detail is needed, show the person acting that way, or have someone's dialog show the action.

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I called up the Stack Exchange page just to see if anything had changed.

"Hey, Cline," I called across the room, "check this out."

Cline didn't even pull his nose out of the writing text. "I don't have to. Architect wants to know how to introduce multiple characters, right?" He flipped the back cover closed, and picked up the next book.

"Why don't you stop reading and start writing? And how did you know Architect was asking that?"

"Me to know and you to find out."

"Aww, forget it." He was always ahead of me. I waved a dismissive hand at Cline and turned back to the computer, a mere second before a hand slapped me on the back of the head.

"Cline's always ahead of you."

"Static, cut it out!" I spun around and grabbed his Army surplus shirt by the lapels. "One of these days!"

"Easy, boy," Static said, laughing. "We're all always ahead of you."

"Yeah, well, don't rub it in." I let go of his shirt. "Hey, are we going to Christopher's writing seminar or not?"

"As long as you're driving."

"I always drive!"

"Okay, tell you what I'll do," Static said. "Nathan and Justy are going to walk through that door in about thirty seconds. Bet you Nathan speaks first. If I'm right, you pay for the gas."

"You're on!" I said.

We turned to watch. As predicted, Nathan and Justy walked through the door practically in step with each other, then stopped as if on a drill sergeant's command. They looked the three of us over, then turned to each other with mock disgust and said in perfect unison, "How long have we known these three clowns?"

Static and I groaned. Cline chuckled and just kept reading.

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This hasn't explicitly been mentioned but one good way to introduce characters is for existing characters to act and react in ways that show they already know the new character.

An example. Early in one of my works, I had a military commander (and a minor character) show extreme prejudice against one of my main characters in front of the other. But both of my mains clearly knew him, knew he was like this and knew calling him on it would achieve nothing. So they didn't. That was maybe an extreme example, but it works well with all sorts of mannerisms, such as liking to sleep late, or preferring milk over whiskey.

When an existing character clearly knows more than the reader about a new character, it shows the world has been running before the story started. Readers usually like that.

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"Boris and Guido walked in the room. The crew was already there: Max the Fridge, holding his tommy-gun; Claude, the knife-worker; Bobby the Weasel in a Goodwill suit and worn hat; Pat the Rat, whose bulbous nose even eclipsed his billard-ball smooth head. In the corner, Betty was leaning on a crassy desk, fat ashtray at hand. "

See? I introduced seven shady types in 60 words.

You want to read what happens next, don't cha?

The trick is to trigger the reader's imagination to fill in the details.

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2  
I lost track. Too many at once. –  MGOwen Feb 8 '11 at 0:54

To add to what justkt said, there's no reason why characters who have known each other for years and years wouldn't "comment" on each other's character traits - in fact, those are precisely the kind of characters who would. Maybe not directly to one another, but at least in their thoughts and actions. Something like (from George's POV): "George picked up the check. He always paid for dinner, because Fred was a miserly bastard." (Kind of bad writing, but it's just an example.)

Just because George has this thought about Fred doesn't mean he doesn't like Fred, but it does show George's attitude toward Fred on this particular matter, and it also tells us something about Fred.

As justkt said, that's not the only way to "introduce" characters or help your reader learn more about them - but don't let the fact that your characters know each other well stop you from writing their thoughts on each other and commenting (gossiping, even) on one another. The truth is, friends and family are far more likely to do this accurately - acquaintances and strangers can only give impressions, which may not be accurate at all.

A lot of how you do this depends most upon whether you've chosen Third-Person Limited, Omniscience, First-Person, etc. If it's Third-Person Limited, then we're always going to see everyone else through the eyes of one person (even if the viewpoint changes from chapter-to-chapter) and we'll be much closer to that characters attitude and his view of the others. If it's Omniscience, then you have room to move around from person-to-person, giving us a broader sweep of thoughts and attitudes, but at the expense of not letting the reader get too close to any one character. It's up to you, and whatever best serves your story.

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