You know that old saw “you never get a second chance to make a first impression?” I don’t know how much it really matters in real life, but it absolutely matters in books.
The way you introduce a character will leave an indelible imprint for your reader. Hopefully. If you nail it.
Here are some tips on how to get it right.
Problematic first impressions
There are two main ways authors get things wrong when they introduce a new character:
- They don’t give enough physical description to help us create a mental image for the new character.
- They focus too much on “establishing” the character in a static way, with history and backstory, rather than weaving the character into the story.
Rather than just dropping in a character and hoping we fill in the details, at least give us something to anchor to, whether it’s an article of clothing, their presence, or a facial expression. Synecdoches can work and the reader will fill in a lot of blanks if they have a bit of context.
And rather than taking up a whole chapter simply to “introduce” a character and a static (and inevitably boring) way, introduce them in the course of advancing the story. You can provide whatever exposition you need to contextualize their presence along the way.
But even beyond just these basic nuts and bolts, I’d suggest a new way of thinking about introducing characters.
Every time you introduce a new character is an opportunity.
While I’d caution against overly screenplay-izing your novel, there is definitely one area where I think it’s great to think like a movie director.
Think of some the iconic character introductions of all time:
- Darth Vader stepping onto the spaceship, his respirator hissing. (along with basically every first impression in Star Wars).
- General George Patton in front of a giant American flag.
- Humphrey Bogart in his white dinner coat as Rick in Casablanca.
- Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West on the bike in The Wizard of Oz.
These moments are vivid and palpable. The characters are doing something, they have a unique physical presence. It’s a moment you remember.
As you’re thinking cinematically, don’t rely on dialogue to introduce the character. Make it physical. Think in terms of action and description, not just quips and words.
Plan your first impressions
I believe in first impressions so strongly I weave them into my book outlines. I track how I introduce every major character in the novel and make sure I’m setting the right tone.
Put a great deal of thought into those first impressions. You might be surprised how much they’ll make your novel come alive.
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Art: The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Vermeer