Many aspects of writing can be hard to get right, especially in our first draft. For just two examples:
- With our story beginning, we might struggle to find a good balance between a throat-clearing boring scene (before getting to the good stuff) and jumping into the plot’s action too quickly (before readers care about our character hanging off a cliff by their fingernails).
- With our characters, even with all the prep work to make our character well-rounded, we might struggle with how to show them to readers in a way that elicits empathy and a desire to follow their story.
Put those two aspects together, and we have the double difficulty of introducing our characters at the beginning of our story to create the right impression for readers. We all know that first impressions can be important, so what should we keep in mind for how we introduce our characters?
Step #1: Is Our Choice a “Good” Scene?
There are countless options for how to fulfill each idea of our story. Even once we have a general premise, plot, and characters, we can reveal the story in dozens—if not hundreds—of ways. So how can we know the right setup, scene, or situation to create the right impression?
At any point in our story, a “good” scene is one that:
- moves the story forward, setting up the next plot point or milestone in the character’s emotional journey
- grows out of previous story events
- reveals aspects of our character that we want readers to understand
- increases reader interest in the story and character
- reinforces our story’s theme and/or our character’s emotional arc
Of course, at our story beginning, we don’t need to worry about the second bullet point as much. But in exchange, our opening scene also needs to establish our story’s genre, setting, mood, and tone.
Step #2: What Impression Does Our Choice Create?
For the all-important early introduction to our character, we also want to consider which scene and situation option would best:
- allow our character to express their current personality (not act out of character)
- kick off the right character emotional arc and story theme
- establish our character as empathetic, likeable, and/or compelling to readers
- reveal a hint of our character’s vulnerability, longing, or false belief (so readers get a sense of their path of growth)
- anchor readers in who our character is and the world they live in
“Boring” Is Never a Good Choice
Note that for the last point listed above, we want to share context, not backstory or explanation. We just want to give readers a hook to connect with our character and their goals and struggles.
Contrary to what we might think, beginnings aren’t about setting up the character and their situation. Beginnings are about setting up elements of the story’s conflicts. Readers will learn about the character and their situation along the way.
For example, to hint at a character’s longing or the obstacles in their way, we could:
- show a choice the character makes that demonstrates how they’re sabotaging themselves from reaching their potential
- show a problem the character must deal with that gives readers our intended impression of some character traits
- show a problem that gives readers hints about the main conflict and how it relates to the character
The point is to show conflict. Readers want to see characters in action, showing who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and what matters to them.
Revise to Get It Right
As I mentioned at the outset, we’re often not going to get all the pieces right in our first draft, but feedback on our opening pages can help us fix issues in revisions. Our goal is to make readers of our excerpts and “look inside” pages want to keep reading.
For example, in Treasured Claim, the first story of my Mythos Legacy series, the opening scene showed my heroine preparing to steal—er, acquire jewelry, setting up her personality and the conflict and goals with action. Obviously, however, that setup could also make her unlikable to many readers, so I revised to include her motivation: If she didn’t steal jewelry, she would die. Including that context for how the character was vulnerable helped readers connect to her.
Tweaking motivations, reactions, emotions, etc. can all help readers get on the same page as our intentions. Thinking of how readers will interpret our words, story, and characters can be difficult, and it’s often doubly hard to create the right impression of our characters from the start. But with feedback and revision, we can make sure our character’s introduction not only sets up the story and plot, but also gives readers a reason to stick around for their journey. *smile*
Do you have any questions or insights about character introductions and impressions?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.