Writing Characters: First Comes Like
Working with a character as a writer requires a deep knowledge of them, how they came to be, and awareness of both the personality quirks and experiences that affect the decisions they’ll make in the story. In the process, the main character (MC) becomes the star, the darling of the page. An author always wants the reader to connect with their hero and eventually love them deeply. It can be tempting to craft a prologue, backstory chapter, or other written window into their lives so the reader can immediately appreciate how amazing the MC is. Avoid this trap, and give just enough for a first impression.
When introducing someone you know very well, the typical process is to bring them to the person they will meet, say “this is my friend” and give their name, start up a conversation about things the two people have in common, then only stick around as long as it takes for them to continue it on their own. One doesn’t hand out page long synopsis on their friends’ lives to everyone they introduce them to. Another version of this in real life is talking about the friend constantly to where actually meeting the person is stressful and full of silent comparisons to what they’d imagined up.
This applies directly to introducing an MC. Too much prep and the impression has already been made. A prologue, while a useful tool for developing useful backstory points, hurts a first reading rather than helps it. Have the courage to omit it entirely and make the character interesting enough to catch the reader’s attention.
This is also about trusting the reader, not just trusting thorough character preparation. The reader’s opinion will differ from the author’s, and they need the freedom to decide. Doctor Who, the popular British sci-fi series, experiences the challenge of introducing their main character over and over again. As a part of the series, the title character is an alien that looks human and that gets a new body through a process called regeneration. This allows the writers the opportunity to create new versions of the Doctor with new actors playing the role.
Each regeneration is different, creating a new wardrobe, a new catch phrase, and new motivations. In the introduction to the 10th Doctor, played by David Tennent, the audience sees him wake up after becoming a new man. He wakes up just in time to save the world, and when the villain demands to know who he is, he says:
“I don’t know! See that’s the thing. I’m the Doctor. But beyond that I just don’t know. I literally do not know who I am. It’s all untested. Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? Right old misery? Life and soul? Right-handed, left-handed? A gambler, a fighter, a coward, a traitor, a liar, a nervous wreck? I mean judging by the evidence I’ve certainly got a gob.”
Characters define themselves by their actions, and they change over the course of the story. This is how the audience should get to know them, and first impressions should be as short as, “This is my MC. Trust me, you’ll like them. Here’s the story.”
Love at first sight is never actually first sight. First comes like, and like only requires a few appealing things. Book covers, synopses, and shared reviews are often just enough to tantalize readers’ interest, making a deliberate introduction even more redundant. Using a dating analogy, a writer is looking to get their MC asked on a second date. Plot is the activity, but the reader should be getting to know the MC.
Consider the events in Harry Potter. He’s introduced in his lowest of positions, a permanent and unwelcome house guest of his aunt and uncle. As strange things begin to happen to him, he’s presented in a variety of places including the zoo, school, and finally in a little shack on a rock his uncle rents just to get away from Harry’s mysterious letters. This initial variety allows readers to get to know Harry thoroughly before they have to follow him into a whole new magical world with him as their only friend.
Sometimes sharing the unpleasant details about a character, the things that look odd or set them apart, just require time to become endearing.
Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose, while a frightening thing and made out carefully to be grotesque, is made less and less important as the audience experiences the artistic soul behind the face. It stands in contrast of ugly compared to the beauty of his soul, though both sides make him exceptional among all others. From an objective perspective, Harry Potter’s scar does the same. If a person had a large scar prominently positioned on their forehead, this would be the first thing people would notice when introduced. Over time and after sharing experiences, this is a distinctive feature that would make them instantly recognizable, even endearing or reassuring to someone who cared about them.
The best relationships develop over time, so brief introductions with just enough to spark interest are plenty sufficient to start one off. Nurture the relationship between the reader and the MC rather than forcing the MC down their throat.
Last night, I stayed up way too late finishing Ben Marcus' short story, "What Have You Done," in the New Yorker. Short…thewritepractice.com
Introducing your protagonist to your reader may be the single trickiest job for a novelist. You have to let readers get…annerallen.blogspot.com