Write Better: 3 Ways To Introduce Your Main Character

One of the biggest bugaboos in manuscript submissions is when the author doesn’t properly introduce the protagonist within the first chapter. Readers want to know quickly the protagonist’s sex, age and level of sophistication in the world of the story, and they want to relate to the character on an emotional level. Readers’ interest in the protagonist has to be earned, in other words.

If we like a character, then we want to see her do well and we’re willing to follow her around and invest our time and interest in rooting her on in her struggle. But it’s important we know some essentials about the character so we can get to like her. The trick is to avoid stand-alone description or exposition and to instead show your character in action.

Hooked61edgerton1This guest post is by Les Edgerton, author of fifteen books, including two about writing fiction: Hooked (Writer’s Digest Books) and Finding Your Voice (Writer’s Digest Books). He also writes short stories, articles, essays, novels, and screenplays. Follow him on Twitter @HookedOnNoir.


1. Keep physical description minimal.

A character’s physical description—unless markedly different than the norm—does relatively little to draw the reader in. The character’s actions, or details such as his occupations and interests, are much more useful. The readers will furnish a perfectly good description on their own if you simply let them know that the Uncle Charley of your story is a butterfly collector, or the elderly toll-gate keeper on the Suwannee River. Doing so will accomplish more than 10 pages of describing hair and eye color, height, weight and all of that kind of mundane detail.

My own writing contains very little description of any of my characters—it’s virtually nonexistent—yet for years I’ve asked readers if they can describe a character I pick at random from my stories, and invariably they come up with a detailed description, no matter which character I choose. When I tell them I haven’t ever described the character mentioned, they’re surprised, and some swear that I did, even going so far as to drag out the story and skim for where I’ve included the description. They never find it.

The point is, physical descriptions of characters are overrated and the poorest way to give the reader a mental picture of your character. Physical description is valuable only if it actually means something in the story: For instance, a character with a pronounced limp—a limp that is crucial to his person—runs the Boston Marathon and wins.

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2. Characterize through action.

Bestselling British writer Nick Hornby starts his novel How to Be Good by taking us through his protagonist’s inciting incident, revealed in an action that is contrary to her normal behavior and personality.

I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of … slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, I really didn’t think I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn’t forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of times and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.

Wow! Don’t you wish you’d written that? I sure do!

While we are being taken through her story-problem-creating crisis, we learn a great deal about protagonist Katie Carr. First, she comes across as surprised and amazed at her own behavior, which she herself views as diametrically opposed to the kind of person she is. She’s just not the type (at least in her own mind) to blurt out her desire for a divorce to her husband over a phone. The implication behind the words is that she’s fairly dumbfounded that she’d even consider a divorce, much less announce this over the phone. The readers suspect that they’ve perhaps come across an unreliable narrator, and unreliable narrators almost always carry the promise of at least some fun (for the readers) in a story. It’s exciting to try to figure out the truth of a character from the clues the author provides.

Or, it may be that this really is her true character and that it took a cataclysmic event (her marriage breakdown) to force it to the surface. In either event, this opening promises an intriguing read and it does so by showing the character in action. She’s saying she’s a woman of no surprises—that she lives her life in a conventional and probably even boring fashion—but then she performs a totally unconventional (for her) action. Who wouldn’t want to read on to find out why she’s acted in this way? Quite a few couldn’t resist—this novel ended up a New York Times bestseller.

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3. Instill Individuality and Depth.

A very different example of establishing the protagonist’s character from the start is found in crime novelist Michael Connelly’s Lost Light:

There is no end of things in the heart.

Someone once told me that. She said it came from a poem she believed in. She understood it to mean that if you took something to heart, really brought it inside those red velvet folds, then it would always be there for you. No matter what happened, it would be there waiting. She said this could mean a person, a place, a dream. A mission. Anything sacred. She told me that it is all connected in those secret folds. Always. It is all part of the same and will always be there, carrying the same beat as your heart.

I am fifty-two years old and I believe it. At night when I try to sleep but can’t, that is when I know it. It is when all the pathways seem to connect and I see the people I have loved and hated and helped and hurt. I see the hands that reach for me. I hear the beat and see and understand what I must do. I know my mission and I know there is no turning away or turning back. And it is in those moments that I know there is no end of things in the heart.

What makes this opening different? Well, it’s by a brand-name author with a sizable audience already in place. Michael Connelly’s books have made the bestseller lists at least 19 more times than I’ve hit a grand-slam walk-off home run at Yankee Stadium as a member of the Bronx Bombers. This means he can write just about any opening he wants and it’s going to get published. It also means that in the hands of a writer without a ready-made audience such as Connelly enjoys, opening with the protagonist’s bit of philosophy might not work, if not done well. It could easily come across as sentimental or self-indulgent.

There is, however, another factor at work here. Connelly writes detective novels and his protagonist, Hieronymus Bosch, is a character he uses a lot. Nineteen times, in fact. One reason a series character becomes popular is because of some bit of individuality that endears the character to the readers and makes him interesting. One of Bosch’s quirks is that he is a deeply philosophical man. He’s not just a guy who runs around solving crimes. He chooses to investigate only crimes that he has a philosophical interest in, usually an aspect of something he perceives as a character flaw in himself. Solving the crime is a way for Bosch to work out his own psychological problems. Which is the reason that Connelly’s novels transcend genre and can be considered literary as well as popular. They are as much about the inner psychological life of a character as they are about the crime to be solved.

We can see from the beginning that Bosch is a detective with a deep soul and a thoughtful, reflective mien. What the author chooses to reveal about his character is telling. This is a character worth knowing better—a character with depth.

We can also see from the beginning that there’s trouble ahead. The narrator has already told us he’s about to be engaged in a dark struggle, a struggle as much against himself as against his onstage adversary.

And so we read on. As will your readers, should you craft such a beguiling opening.

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16 thoughts on “Write Better: 3 Ways To Introduce Your Main Character

  1. jordanflintoff

    In most of the cases it is specialty of the writers to create suspense in their book’s and novel’s characters. As a result readers are taking good interest in it; most probably in a story we have found different types of characters and artists and a writer is able to maintain the suspense of the characters that age, gender and many others. I must recommend other writers to go through these types of concepts to create suspense in reader’s mind; which improve their interest in the book and character.

  2. wa4otj

    Another tip I think, is to have fun with language. Words are meant to be used! That is not to say that one should use so many uncommon words as to make their story impenetrable, but we are NOT writing for the illiterate! Imagine a painter who eschews the breadth and depth of his color palate to only paint in the three primary colors! It used to work for Superman, but even his color tastes have changed since comic book days, as evidenced by the new costume in ‘Man of Steel’.
    In my debut novel “Chromosome Quest” I tried hard to toss in a vocabulary-stretching word occasionally. e.g. I used ‘rucksack’ at one point, when ‘bag’ might have sufficed.
    I also like to incorporate slang-words from the urban dictionary, thus words like manscaping, or folkscoping find their way into my prose. I once wrote a 50,000 word porn story with only two instances of “F***” and those were quotes. I am also not above inventing my own words on occasion.
    In short, words are to the writer what colors are to the painter. They must be used artfully, intelligently and judiciously (See what I did there?).
    It is difficult to walk the line between using one’s words carefully and artfully, and drawing the reader in, verses seeming pompous and arrogant and pushing the reader away. In ‘Chromosome Quest’ I hope I have succeeded. Only the readers can judge. http://www.ChromosomeQuest.com

  3. atwhatcost

    Good advice, and fortunately I’m catching a clue on how much I’m able to pull off at this point and how much I can’t. I doubt I could start with a philosophical insight. I don’t know when that’s good or bad.

    But, I sure would like to know how to describe the protagonist in the second in a series. It seems dumb to re-describe him. Philosophy isn’t his forte’. (He’s a kid. Oh, he’s also a teddy bear, literally, so it seems repetitive to say that.) I keep hoping the cover does the describing enough.

    Thanks for the remind, Les. It’s been a while since I had to rethink the opening hook. (Less time since I had to worry about the continuing hook. ;))

  4. Clinton A. Seeber

    No, I don’t wish that I had written the quoted except. I like the advice, except for number one. Physical descriptions of a character not being important- that’s pure rubbish, man! When you write in the fantasy genre like I do, detailed physical descriptions of the environment/setting and all major characters is actually extremely important. I think you are mediocre at best, sir.

      1. atwhatcost

        I see your list of great novels. Oh, wait! I don’t.

        Which of Mr. Edgerton’s 15 books do you think is mediocre?

        That was truly a pathetic remark.

        You might want to read some modern fantasy. Even with something like Harry Potter, the only thing we know of what he looks like was he was smaller than all the other students, wore glasses and had a scar on his forehead. (Not even where on his forehead.) You might want to listen more, or chance are I’ll never find any books from you.

    1. wa4otj

      I respectfully disagree. I am a great believer in the concept of “Theater of the Mind” in which the writer provides a giant canvas in the reader’s mind, with only a few significant bits on which the reader is free to construct their own vision, a “paint by the numbers” outline the reader can fill in with their own colors. The challenge is to provide just enough information for the reader to build upon, the broad strokes, but leave much of the fine detail to the imagination of the reader. It is difficult to pull off well but when it is accomplished it works extraordinarily well. Engage the reader’s imagination, that is the key! I have tried hard to do this in my debut novel “Chromosome Quest”, only time, and readers, will tell if I succeeded. http://www.ChromosomeQuest.com

  5. dudeguy101

    I do not understand the purpous of this website! let me drill it into your skulls for the final time -p IF YOU CANNOT INRODUCE YOUR OWN CHARACTER OR YOU ON UNSURE ABOUT HOW TO STRUCTUE YOUR OWN STORY, YOU ARE NOT SUITABLE TO WRITE A BOOK… OR ANYTHING, FOR THAT MATTER!!!

    Jesus Christ!

    1. dicemanbob

      seems to me that no one is born knowing how to do anything – everything must be learned – if you read good writing you will absorb, you will learn, and if you live a life of observation you will have ideas and something to say. Any help from those who have gone before should be welcomed and considered. (by the way, an expert such as yourself would know to check spelling before posting)

  6. dudeguy101

    No. In paragraph 2, it states that he wants to have written that. Well, quite frankly, being the miserable old miser that I am, do not. Terrible tips and, as I am sure I have said before, if you cannot introduce your own freakin’ character, YOU ARE NOT FIT TO WRITE THE BOOK!

  7. JanelleFila

    That’s interesting about description. Sounds like less is more. I think that’s one of the reasons I hate pictures of characters on cover art because it limits the readers creativity and forces a specific look onto a character. I also think that’s why some book to movie adaptations work and some don’t. If the actor or actress doesn’t look the way the reader imagined the character then the movie doesn’t come across as believable. Janelle http://www.janellefila.com


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