Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Introducing Characters

The posts the last couple days from Tom and Rick on creating opening scenes got me thinking about the best way to introduce characters in a story. How the reader or viewer first sees a character, whether it’s in an opening scene or one much later in the book/movie, impacts their expectations about that character as the story continues.

In one of the gazillion how-to books on writing I’ve read over the years, there was one suggestion on this topic that has stuck with me. Basically, it’s that a writer should introduce a character in a place they’d typically be found or doing something they’d typically be doing. e.g. a character who’s a magician could be introduced performing a magic trick; a lawyer could be introduced in a scene in a courtroom or somewhere else doing lawyerly things. Stuff like that.

I don’t remember who wrote this pearl of wisdom or anything about the book it came from, but it’s helped me out over the years. It’s pretty straightforward and maybe I was a bit stupid for not coming up with it myself. I think of it every time I’m deciding on how to introduce a character in a new story I’m working on. The times that I’ve ignored it and inserted someone into an environment that really didn’t suit them, the character seems to come across as boring and flat. It’s turned out much better when I move them to a scene that’s more suited to them.

I had this one character in my first book that I introduced in one scene that really didn’t suit her. It’s been so long ago I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that she bored me. Not a good thing. If something bores the writer, it’s certainly going to bore a reader. I wasn’t sure what to do about it until I thought about that pearl of wisdom I mentioned earlier. As soon as I moved her initial introduction to a scene set in the decorative painting supply store that periodically appears in my books, she really came to life. That’s an environment you’d expect to see her in and one she shines in. I was no longer bored with her.

Now consider that opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Rick mentioned, it tells you a lot about Indiana Jones. I also think it fits right into the concept I just talked about. Sure, Indy’s a professor and could have first been shown in the classroom teaching his students, but I think overall that the fundamental part of his character is that he’s an adventurer. The impression I have is that, while he might be a decent professor, he’s really just doing it so he can get out there and do adventurous things. That’s why I think choosing to show him in adventure-mode is a much better way of introducing him.

What about you writers out there? How do you decide how to introduce a character? Any pearls of wisdom for us?


Anna said...

It's only blind luck that led me to introduce my shady character in the act of stealing a magazine from his dentist's waiting room. Now this post will help me introduce the other characters more effectively. Thanks!

Susan D said...

thanks, Sybil. Like Rick's observation about establishing "he's the right guy for the job", I like the idea of showing the protag in the place where they shine. (And a good way to showcase competence porn.)

DP Lyle said...

Excellent post on an important topic. Introducing characters is often overlooked but the first impression the reader develops dictates how they will view the character through the remainder of the story---first impressions being what they are. I created a show on my Criminal Mischief podcast series on this topic if you what to take and listen and read through some of the examples I used:

DP Lyle

Sybil Johnson said...

I will check that podcast out. Thanks. I'm glad people are finding this post worthwhile.