Introducing the Characters in Your Story
Who should you invite to the first fifteen pages party?
Have you ever been to a party with a friend who insists you spend the entire evening meeting one person after another?
“Oh, there’s John, you have to meet him,” she says, only pull you away after a minute or two to meet Alicia, and a minute later Brent, and then just as you are getting to know Brent, there’s Eloise, and by the end of the evening, everyone has become a blur?
A few days later at coffee, your friend waxes poetic about what a great time the two of you had and she starts quizzing you about the people you met.
“Don’t you just love Alicia? Her work is amazing.”
“Really?” you ask, trying to conjure up an image of Alicia. “What does she do?”
“What do you mean what does she do? I introduced you to her so you could talk about her work. The two of you have so much in common!”
Don’t be that writer! The one who introduces the reader to everyone in the story within the first fifteen or so pages.
Don’t create a big, messy, confusing dinner party at the beginning of your novel that causes the reader to wonder who the characters are and what their roles are in the story.
The first fifteen pages should introduce the reader to the main characters, the people we need to get to know to become invested in your story. And in those crucial opening pages we should only meet the characters that are directly impacted by the inciting incident of the book. Otherwise, you are setting your reader up for confusion, frustration, or disappointment.
And, don’t be the person who lures us to dinner with the hint of someone we can’t wait to meet joining us and then tell us once we get there they aren’t coming.
How does this apply to writing? I recently read a submission that began with a prologue about an elderly couple living quietly in Poland in the midst of World War II. In his prologue, the writer did a brilliant job of situating the reader in time and place and creating a beautiful character sketch of an elderly couple living in the country that had, until that point, avoided the war. Within a few short pages, I fell in love with the couple. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, but the writer did the unthinkable. He killed them off, just as we were getting to know them.
While the author attempted to use the prologue to draw the reader in by showing us the level of brutality embraced by the recurring characters, for me, it was unsuccessful. The other characters in those first fifteen pages were stereotypes or too remote. All I could think about as I read the rest of the submission were the old man and his wife lying dead outside their home.
I didn’t want to keep reading. The story was over before it got rolling.
A Note on Killing Your Darlings
There are times when killing off your reader’s favorite character works. Serial TV relies heavily on this device. The immensely popular “Game of Thrones” series is a perfect example. George R.R. Martin spends a good bit of time developing a character, and then just when the audience is fully invested and loves the character, Martin kills them off as a transition to the next big idea or season. BUT, he only uses this option when he knows that the audience has become invested in another character that he has developed to take the place of the character he is killing off.
For example, no one would have rooted for Jon Snow as much as they did if he wasn’t the last male Stark, and he wouldn’t be the last male Stark if the writer hadn’t beheaded his father in the first season, or killed Rob off during the Red Wedding in season three. Jon Snow’s character was created to embody all the positive traits of the Starks, and to learn from their mistakes. Jon isn’t trusting like Ned, he isn’t vain or arrogant like Rob, nor does he allow women to distract him from his duty. If you are going to kill off an established character, have someone waiting in the wings to pick up the reader’s interest and loyalty.
Think of your opening pages as an intimate dinner party for two or four or maybe six if you are adept at entertaining and can pull it off. You’ve invited these people to your table because they know things we, the reader, need to know, perspectives we need to understand, and have information to impart that ties directly to the inciting incident. Otherwise, they might as well be a chair or a candlestick, not a character.
In many of the opening pages we read, either the characters or their motivations are obscure, leaving us wondering what the story is about. That is bad news for writers. If agents and editors don’t know what your story is about by page fifteen, we pass.
The job of the first fifteen pages
1. Introduce the main characters in the novel. If the story is primarily about the actions or journey of one character, focus on that character in those first pages. You can give us glimpses of other characters but don’t try to introduce everyone in the first few pages if they are not integral to either the inciting incident or to the overall plot.
2. Include unique details and distinguishing traits for each character you introduce to encourage your reader to begin a relationship with the people in your story.
3. Infuse each character introduced in the first fifteen pages with action, dialogue, and purpose. Remember a character is there for one purpose — to advance the story. Period. If a character doesn’t advance the story through dialogue or action, they shouldn’t be in your novel.
We’ll talk more about character in the next post. Happy writing!
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Sandra O’Donnell is the author of Your First Fifteen Pages. She’s read hundreds of queries and has a passion for helping writers create stories that connect with agents, publishers, and readers.