Late Arrivals: Introducing Characters in Closing Chapters & Avoiding Deus Ex

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Character introduction is always there on the challenge scale. How much/little detail do you give? How do you make it easy for the reader to connect with them? How do you make them seem like real people? And so on, and so forth. All these questions are covered often and variously, and I’m sure I’ll revisit them in more depth. But here’s one that isn’t raised so much: where in the story is the cut-off point for introducing new characters?

The thing is, sometimes your protagonist ends up in a situation that they can’t solve by themselves. That’s good and as it should be – no one wants to read about the perfect, self-sufficient character unless he’s called MacGyver and played by a young Richard Dean Anderson. But if they need outside assistance towards the end of the book (which is perfectly possible because that’s where the stakes get raised) then you risk the introduction of a new character looking like a deus ex move.

Brief précis for those who haven’t heard the term, and to flex my much-ignored classicist muscles: the term ‘deus ex machina‘ originally comes from ancient Greek theatre (despite the phrase being Latin), where an actor playing a god would literally descend from above the stage in a crane in order to solve the problems of the plot. Or lightning-bolt someone – it was a toss up. The Roman poet Horace specifically advised against using this device ‘unless a difficulty worthy of a god’s unravelling should happen’. Basically, don’t do it. It’s generally seen as a lack of creativity on the writer’s part, and leaves the audience feeling cheated. I cite the great eagles in Lord of the Rings as a prime example, although Tolkein called them a eucatastrophe rather than a deus ex. He made up that word, though, so I’m not sure I buy it.

JRR couldn't be bothered to write the walk home.

JRR couldn’t be bothered to write the walk home.

So is there a cut-off point in the story, beyond which you can’t introduce new characters? Or does it just boil down to the manner of their introduction? I’ve just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s latest, Raising Steam. On page 319 out of 370 he introduces a new character who sticks around for a couple of pages, long enough to remove an obstacle that didn’t have to be there in the first place. It felt enough like padding to jar me out of immersion – and I’m a big Pratchett fan. If he can’t do it, can anyone?

The reason I ask is because a new character turns up in Corpus about four fifths of the way through the book. She’s there to serve multiple purposes, none of which are truly world-saving but all of which are important. During beta testing, though, her appearance was picked up on as ‘cursory’. Now, it’s perfectly possible that I just need to do some work on developing the scenes, but it made me wonder whether late character arrivals were ever wholly successful.

Can anyone think of a good example?

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3 responses »

  1. I’m struggling to think of a good example, although I can think of a few more bad ones. 🙂

    An exception might be in horror stories / films, where some supernatural entity is only revealed / explained late in the plot. Avoiding spoilers, I’m thinking of a good film where a bunch of supernatural happenings were revealed to be the acts of a (new) character, who was revealed in time to aid the protagonists against the true, mundane yet murderous, enemy.

    But, of course, both “new” characters had been foreshadowed throughout the story.

    I guess foreshadowing is the key to any late reveal. “We’ll be travelling west, which takes us to the land of the Forest Witch.” “Oh? That’s interesting. Can you tell me a bit about her life and motivations? Maybe a paragraph’s worth.” “Right, well, I’m glad you asked …”

    • Like Al I can’t really think of good examples, and I think the solution isn’t to fix what happens once the character appears late in the story, but to go back and lay the groundwork. Mention the character earlier in the story, foreshadow their presence through their effect on the world, or even have them appear doing something else earlier in the story. That way when they appear everyone won’t cry ‘eagle!’

      On the whole ‘euchatastrophe’ thing, I don’t totally buy into Tolkien’s approach to story. I think he said a lot of interesting, insightful things, but the importance of religion to him led him down some intellectual avenues I don’t agree with. Deus ex is still deus ex, especially if it offers salvation.

  2. When done well, I LOVE the character who appears at the final stages of a plot, but dislike it for the reasons given. A recent memory for me was ENO’s production of Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’; where Don Fernando appears at the finale like a force that cannot be understood by mortals.

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