After reading “Establishing Important characters”, I have a question. My work is a zombie apocalypse series and has one protagonist. In each book, I introduce some important characters assisting the protagonist. However, they are total strangers the protagonist hasn’t known before, many of whom have character arcs. Some may stay with the protagonist or leave or die. Therefore, is it violating the audience’s expectation, especially the ones arriving late in the series? I have foreshadowed them before their appearance and mentioned them if they’re absent. And one more question: is the villain counted as an important character?
Hey James, thanks for writing in!
When it comes to side characters, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. It’s expected that new books will add new characters, especially in a zombie story where lots of characters die. In most cases, the clock to introduce new characters is reset when a new book starts, so you should be able to introduce new survivors without much trouble.
This is generally true of villains, though the downside to having a new villain each book is that you may have trouble escalating the conflict, since each bad guy has to start from scratch. It’s still doable though, especially if a new villain is part of an existing organization that the protagonist has tangled with before.
The main thing to be careful of is situations where it really feels like we should have heard of this character before. This is most common with villains, but it could happen with particularly badass side characters too. For example, in book five of The Expanse, a new villain named Marcos Inaros is introduced.
The Expanse had introduced new villains before without a problem, but this guy was apparently a strategic and tactical genius on the level of Alexander the Great. He’d been a leader among the Belters for years, attacking government forces and generally causing mayhem. Within a single book, Marcos brings the major military powers to their knees and is within striking distance of taking over the entire system.
The problem was that if he’s that much of a badass, it really feels like the heroes should have heard of him before. No one develops that kind of skill overnight, so it seems like he should have been a big deal before the author introduced him in book five. Fortunately, zombie apocalypse settings generally don’t have a lot of mass communication, so you have more leeway, but it’s still something to keep in mind. If a new villain rolls with tanks from their base that’s just a town or two over, readers will get a bit suspicious.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on Can I Add New Characters in a New Book?
Oren’s answer is pretty much to the point, but I’ll throw in a little bit from my own experience, too.
Since I’m writing several series, I introduce new characters quite often. I do have recurring characters and not all of them have been hanging around since book one. The main reason is that, well, I had no idea they would exist when I wrote book one. I have by now transitioned from discovery writing to plotting and most of the series I’m currently writing have started before I really went into plotting. Therefore (and for other reasons), my series don’t have a very strong overarcing plot. There’s suggestions here and there, but most of the stories are contained and simply feature the same main characters. Adding to that cast isn’t hard.
In my experience, unless you have a series that’s one big story spanning a number of books, it’s not a problem to introduce new characters, main ones as well as side ones, as long as it feels natural. For instance, Jane (my longest-running series character) had no dedicated boyfriend from book one to book three. In book four, she met Cedric and they’ve been an item ever since (I don’t do ‘romance drama’ once a couple has gotten together – they’re good together, he takes care of her when she’s coming back from a mission injured, and they enjoy their time together). Cedric needed no foreshadowing because he didn’t come into her sphere of influence before book four. Sure, he lived in London, but nobody knows everyone else living in London.
Other new characters, usually villains, can be connected to the Syndicate, an organisation I set up in book five and have been using on and off since. The active villain usually doesn’t survive the book (or doesn’t stay outside of prison), but with an organisation in the background, I guess it makes sense that new problems are coming their way. Yet, book seven has no connection to the Syndicate, while book eight, once released (it’s written already) will again feature it.
However, if you pull a sister out of the hat after several books (or seasons – looking at you, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”), you need a very, very, very good explantion for the sudden appearance of a close relative. As cousin four times removed, say, needs much less of an explanation for not having been mentioned.
Two areas you want to be careful
1. Character bloat. If your eighth book has 25 major characters, and we’re expected to know them all, that’s a problem
2. Character replacement. If someone who has a specific job dies (like the auto mechanic) and they look for and find someone to replace them, that’s fine. That happens. But if someone’s role is to be “the jerk”, try not to replace them w/ another jerk. And if the only black guy dies, does another black guy just happen to show up?
Also, while the villain is an important character, it is reasonable to have a new one each book. What you probably shouldn’t do is introduce a new villain AND still have all the old villains until you have a ridiculously large rogues’ gallery
Yes, if you’re doing a new villain in every book, which is perfectly fine, DON’T keep the old ones around. Referencing them in some way is fine, that builds a connection between the books, but keep them out of the new story.
Character bloat is never a good idea, I agree absolutely with you there. Same with replacements. It’s fine to replace a useful role (mechanic, hacker, fighter, diplomat, etc.) with a new character when the old one quits or dies, but not an archetype or stereotype.
Another factor to consider is audience attachment, especially in stories where the romance or another relationship is key to the plot. A Court Of Thorns And Roses built up this character Tamlin as the idealised love interest and the plot hinged on the romance (it was a Beauty and the Beast retelling). And then books 2 and 3 decided the secondary villain of book 1 was hotter than Tamlin so the narration took a hard left into “oh Tamlin is abusive now but this other guy is now the Perfect Man™”. While it’s interesting to see fictional explorations of how a “perfect relationship” can be abusive underneath the surface, the way this series handled it meant that Tamlin fans were disappointed and fans of the other guy based on his role in Book 1 also wouldn’t have known to expect this bait-and-switch.
Regarding the introduction of characters that haven’t been mentioned orat least foreshadowed in previous books, instead of designing characters and then looking for an excuse for their surprise appearance it might be useful to consider the opposite perspective: finding suitable characters in the available blind spots of reader and character knowledge.
What places and social spheres are characters ignorant about? Where could plausible new major characters “hide”? And what is really known of somewhat established characters, who might turn out to be more important than originally suggested because they are different? For example, a band of zombie survivors on a journey is probably far enough from home to have no idea of what allies and enemies they’ll find in the next town, but if one of them is a cop it would be difficult to introduce an unknown colleague from the same police force.
If a zombie invasion story focuses on immediate concerns of fighting, safety and rising zombie numbers it’s perfectly plausible for a relatively well made conspiracy to cover up the artificial origin of the zombie infestation to remain under the radar for several novels until a suitably paranoid and informed new characters enters the stage and shines a light on a new set of villains.