The Basics of Introducing a Character

I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, on introducing a character in your novel.

The Basics of Introducing a Character

A Few Main Points For When a Character Steps on the Page

Three things to remember when introducing a character, whether the main character or a minor one.

Whenever a character makes a “first appearance” in the novel, there are three things a novelist should remember when writing the scene.

Create a Strong, Quick First Impression

Ideally, the novelist wants the character onstage quickly, without a long paragraph of description.

Give a strong first impression without a lot of detail—simply a phrase to anchor the character in the reader’s mind.

Here is where a cliché could actually be used, because it’s a quick way to create a colorful impression with few words: “a spunky redhead” or “a one-legged pirate” or “a powerful businessman.”

Whatever the writer chooses to create that first impression, make it the most significant aspect of the character. Show a prominent trait or personality, an obvious flaw or perfection. This will make the reader utilize past experience to create a sketch of the character in his mind.

Minor characters only need this one significant aspect pointed out. For major characters, hints revealed here and there in dialogue and action will add more depth to that shallow, significant first impression.

Make the Characters Act

In Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight Swain, he writes:

“Bring your characters on in action. The day when readers would hold still for a long-winded, static description of a character, complete with family tree, is long gone. Now, they want him alive, breathing, doing something—preferably, doing something interesting.”

Show your character doing something to reveal plot elements. A suspicious action can create intrigue. Hidden anxiety can hint at imminent danger. Anger can create conflict. Contrast or paradox can create curiosity. Subtexting in dialogue can hint at deeper waters.

Show the character doing something to reveal to the readers that all is not right, and they can expect imminent change.

Don’t Crowd the Scene

Introducing too many characters at once will only confuse a reader. While the author might be able to easily keep Tom, Dick, Harry, and Jane’s names separate and their personalities might seem very distinct, to a reader just introduced to them, they’re a crowd of strangers.

While you do want to introduce the main characters, especially, early in the story, introducing too many at once can overwhelm the reader. Confusion often leads to a reader putting the book down, unbought.

Make it easy for your reader. Start with two or at most three characters, and introduce others in chapter increments.

Use this slower introduction of characters to advantage—make each character’s entrance dramatic, show-stopping, or significant. That will fix the character in the reader’s mind more vividly.

These three tips will enable a writer to open the story and introduce the characters seamlessly.


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