Tag Archives: dystopian novels

How to Introduce and Name a Cast of Characters

9 Aug

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the questions that will drive writers—and not just beginners—crazy is whether to name a character right away. You’ll hear and read different takes on this. Some journal editors say that they’ll put down a story that begins with he or she and not a name. But naming a character right away can feel odd. The reader doesn’t know this person. Who cares what his name is? The right answer (there isn’t one) is actually part of a larger problem of introducing characters. Do it well, and nobody cares if you start with he. Do it poorly, and that’s an easy way to write off your work.

A great example of introducing characters well (and handling their names) can be found in Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas. You can read read an excerpt from it at Tor.com. 

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a United States that, like the dystopia in the television show The Handmaid’s Tale, feels like a version of our current state of affairs if everything we fear might happen actually did. A big chunk of the novel is set in the American Midwest after some natural apocalypse has rendered the land mostly barren and a political apocalypse has made it run by militias who take their orders from a tyrant leader in Washington, D.C. In this scene, a low-level government bureaucrat has been sent to the area to hunt for an escaped prisoner, and we meet the militia men that she must deal with:

The militia were mostly white, generally stupid, and all scary. The kind of men you would avoid if you saw them on the street, especially if you were black and a woman. The midwestern ones were extra dangerous, because most of them seemed kind of nice when you first talked to them. Nice like the guy at church who smiles at you and offers you a brownie before he tells you how he is going to regulate your life.

Notice that we don’t have any names yet, nor any individuals. Instead, Brown shows us the militia as a generalized whole. The details come a few lines later:

The welcome party were a big ruddy guy in bulletproof brown overalls with built-in ammo pouches and the smell of cigarettes, and a little red-bearded guy dressed more like a run-down pastor than a militiaman, complete with a wooden cross hanging from his neck—and a big pistol on his belt. Turned out he was the doctor, Dr. Craven, and the big guy was the commander. Patrol Leader Koenig was the way the commander introduced himself, but then he said just call me Bob.

Before telling us the names of these guys, Brown shows us them: their complexions and clothing, how they smell, and what they resemble. Then we get their names. While this isn’t the only approach toward names and character introductions, it is a useful one to keep in mind. We’re more likely to remember these guys’ names because we’ve seen them and they’re memorable. Brown also makes their names easy to remember: Craven and just-call-me-Bob. Again, any name can be given to a character, but you want to set readers up to remember who they belong to. As a reader, it can be frustrating to stop in the middle of a scene and ask, “Who is that again?”

Brown follows this introduction with a paragraph about the militia compound:

The house was huge, on a big acreage, a suburban home converted to paramilitary command center. The walls were covered with big maps of the area, annoyed in black grease pencil and red marker. Tania saw photos of targets, some of them mug shots, others surveillance photos. Radios and computers and all manner of gear. Styrofoam cups and a big pile of beer cans in a corner. More guys who looked like Bob, other guys who were leaner and harder looking, and one Asian woman who looked toughest of all, even though she couldn’t have been much taller than five feet.

We’re back to seeing the militia as a single entity, not a group of individuals. All the guys look like Bob. Some are a little tougher looking, and one is a really tough Asian woman. She gets the extra distinguishing detail because she stands out in the crowd.

Very quickly, Brown has introduced a large cast of characters and shown us, through his descriptions, which ones we ought to pay close attention to and which ones should fade into the background—literally, since in the last paragraph the men are given the same status as radios and Styrofoam cups.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce characters and their names, using Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown as a model:

  1. Start with your characters as a group. Obviously, this means you’re writing a scene with more than two characters. Place them in one of the crowded places they’re likely to go. Who do they spend their time with? How might an insider describe that crowd? How might an outsider? Either way can work; it just depends on the circumstances of the scene and who is present. Don’t be afraid of generalizations. Use them to sketch out the broad outlines of who we’re about to meet.
  2. Narrow the group to a few individuals. Who is memorable? Or in charge? Or important? Use the natural progression of real-life introductions. We almost always see someone before we know their name, and we tend to notice a few details about them (but only a few; our minds have a limited ability to take in everything that’s going on in a given moment). What stands out about these particular characters, and what conclusions or comparisons might your insider or outsider draw about them. Brown uses the “run-down pastor” image, which is great because, like the group description, gives the reader a general idea of who this person is or how he appears to be.
  3. Name the characters. Do it quickly and as memorably as possible. Brown actually doubles down on Bob by having his outsider character immediately refer to him by name: “Where’s my prisoner, Bob?”
  4. Place the characters in their surroundings. There’s no rule that says we need to see place before characters. Sometimes that makes sense; other times it doesn’t. What’s important is that one set up the other. Brown’s description of the home focuses on the details that remind us who is staying there. Then, we see those characters as inhabitants of that place.
  5. Introduce the rest of the cast in terms of who we’ve met already. We’ve met Bob, and so Brown can say that the rest of the men are a bunch of Bob’s—and a few of them are tougher. Bob gives him a point of comparison. He also focuses on the character who stands out—the Asian woman in a sea of white men. So, when you’re rounding out your cast, introduce the characters the way we’d see them in real life: as similar to the first characters we met or different. 

The goal is to quickly and memorably introduce a cast of characters so that the story can move on to the scene they are apart of.

Good luck.

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An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

23 Oct
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Take Me Tomorrow features a drug that makes its users temporarily clairvoyant. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Take Me Tomorrow features a drug that makes its users temporarily clairvoyant. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson is the author of the Timely Death Trilogy, a YA paranormal romance series. The first novel in the series, Minutes Before Sunset, was a Goodreads Book of the Month selection. Her most recent novel is Take Me Tomorrow, a YA dystopian thriller.

In this interview, Thompson discusses her growth as a writer since publishing her first novel at the age of 16, stretching the conventions of the YA dystopian genre, and the role of The Odyssey in her new novel.

(To read the opening chapters of Take Me Tomorrow and an exercise on how to begin and end chapters, click here.)

Michael Noll

The chapters have real dramatic punch. Each begins in a moment of tension and ends with that moment ends. As a result, the chapters are often short and focused on a single scene. Do you structure them that way consciously?

Shannon A. Thompson

I never structure chapters to be a certain way. The breaks might change during editing, but I mainly focus on simply telling the story honestly and in the best way possible. In fact, I didn’t even realize that about the chapters until you said it. Perhaps that is just the way Sophia’s mind works.

Michael Noll

This is your fourth novel. The first one, November Snow, was written (I believe) while you were still a teenager. I’m sure it’s easy to see how you’ve developed as a writer since then. I’m curious what you think is the most significant way your writing has grown.

Shannon A. Thompson

I believe my writing has grown dramatically. It’s funny you bring November Snow up because it is currently being re-written for re-release in November of 2015, and even I can confess to the embarrassing moments (the endless moments) I’ve had evaluating the changes I want to make. My voice has become more concise, and my characters have grown in maturity and depth. I am very excited to see how far my stories have come over the past seven years, and I hope to continue growing for the rest of my writing life.

Michael Noll

The novel begins in the woods, with a female narrator running and throwing knives into trees. In other words, we’re in a world that owes some of its existence to The Hunger Games. Its dystopian world (with a tyrannical state apparatus) also sits firmly within the genre of dystopian YA literature. I’m curious how you view yourself as a writer in these genres. Some writers, like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, take inherited creatures and stories and re-imagine them. Other writers—Suzanne Collins, to some extent—write within the genre without feeling the need to stretch it. What sort of writer do you consider yourself? Are you pushing at the conventions or working comfortably within them?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon S. Thompson's YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Shannon A. Thompson’s YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, is set in a region around Topeka, Kansas.

Well, to be honest, I based the beginning off of my real life. I used to live on a couple hundred acres with my husky, Shadow (the inspiration for Argos) and I collect knives in my spare time. That being said, I strived for a more realistic viewpoint in my dystopian novel. The genre is saturated with almost unrelatable worlds, and although those are fantastically entertaining, I wanted Take Me Tomorrow to have a very close relationship with our current world because the themes very much coincide with societal issues of today, and I didn’t want the topics to be buried under a fantasy. Perhaps that is working comfortably within today’s lines, but maybe – in all honesty – it is pushing the conventions since the approach isn’t in dystopian literature as often. I leave that for the reader to decide. That being said, the sequel – Take Me Yesterday — reveals more about the world than the first book, and I am hoping it receives a contract in the near future. Too bad I don’t have tomo to know.

Michael Noll

The Iliad and The Odyssey are mentioned often in this book. To what extent do you look to those books and their monsters and plots, all of which remain freshly contemporary?

Shannon A. Thompson

Both of those stories are mentioned because Sophia really enjoys them. She has a daring soul and an adventurous heart, but the extent of their mention is explained more so in the sequel. That being said, I will point out one particular scene, which is a bit of spoiler, but in Noah’s bedroom, she comes across a statue, but she doesn’t recognize it. This has to do with Greek culture, and it also shows that – although Sophia reads – the government has censored a lot, especially in terms of photographs (hence why Sophia is fascinated by the paintings in Phelps’ mansion) so she doesn’t recognize what she is looking at despite the fact that she would be aware of it if she were alive in our world. Those are very small details that I inserted specifically for the readers who experience novels more than once and for the rest of the series because Sophia ends up on her own odyssey, and the adventure exposes – like you said – many monsters.

October 2014

 

Michael NollMichael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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