Write Better: 3 Ways To Introduce Your Main Character
by Les Edgerton
1. Keep physical description minimal.
A character’s physical description—unless markedly different than the norm—does relatively little to draw the reader in. The character’s actions, or details such as his occupations and interests, are much more useful. The readers will furnish a perfectly good description on their own if you simply let them know that the Uncle Charley of your story is a butterfly collector, or the elderly toll-gate keeper on the Suwannee River. Doing so will accomplish more than 10 pages of describing hair and eye color, height, weight and all of that kind of mundane detail.
My own writing contains very little description of any of my characters—it’s virtually nonexistent—yet for years I’ve asked readers if they can describe a character I pick at random from my stories, and invariably they come up with a detailed description, no matter which character I choose. When I tell them I haven’t ever described the character mentioned, they’re surprised, and some swear that I did, even going so far as to drag out the story and skim for where I’ve included the description. They never find it.
2. Characterize through action.
Bestselling British writer Nick Hornby starts his novel How to Be Good by taking us through his protagonist’s inciting incident, revealed in an action that is contrary to her normal behavior and personality.
I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of … slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, I really didn’t think I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn’t forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of times and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.
Wow! Don’t you wish you’d written that? I sure do!
3. Instill Individuality and Depth.
A very different example of establishing the protagonist’s character from the start is found in crime novelist Michael Connelly’s Lost Light:
There is no end of things in the heart.
Someone once told me that. She said it came from a poem she believed in. She understood it to mean that if you took something to heart, really brought it inside those red velvet folds, then it would always be there for you. No matter what happened, it would be there waiting. She said this could mean a person, a place, a dream. A mission. Anything sacred. She told me that it is all connected in those secret folds. Always. It is all part of the same and will always be there, carrying the same beat as your heart.
I am fifty-two years old and I believe it. At night when I try to sleep but can’t, that is when I know it. It is when all the pathways seem to connect and I see the people I have loved and hated and helped and hurt. I see the hands that reach for me. I hear the beat and see and understand what I must do. I know my mission and I know there is no turning away or turning back. And it is in those moments that I know there is no end of things in the heart.
What makes this opening different? Well, it’s by a brand-name author with a sizable audience already in place. Michael Connelly’s books have made the bestseller lists at least 19 more times than I’ve hit a grand-slam walk-off home run at Yankee Stadium as a member of the Bronx Bombers. This means he can write just about any opening he wants and it’s going to get published. It also means that in the hands of a writer without a ready-made audience such as Connelly enjoys, opening with the protagonist’s bit of philosophy might not work, if not done well. It could easily come across as sentimental or self-indulgent.