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.
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.
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.
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.
If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.