Character Introductions: Characterizing from the get-go

A character’s first appearance in a story is a big opportunity to characterize.  Here are several ways to fulfill its potential.

Bring characters on in character

If you take home nothing else from this post, at least take this: bring characters on in character.

“To introduce any given character effectively, you must first of all bring him on in character,” says Dwight Swain. “That is, the character must behave like the kind of person he is.”

“The first time the reader sees your protagonist, you want her doing the perfect thing,” says Jeff Gerke, “something that instantly typifies her and shows what’s wonderful about her.”

Sol Stein agrees. “The extraordinary quality of character should usually be made evident almost immediately after he or she appears in the story, unless the thrust of a story is to have the gradual unveiling of a character’s unusual habits or ambition.”

To this end of bringing characters on in character, here are several methods of introducing character.

7 Methods for introducing characters

Method 1: Out-of-Viewpoint Description

In this method, you pause “the story to provide readers with a physical or personality description,” says Deborah Chester. “The author tells readers the information.  Breaking viewpoint, the author intrudes into the story to share detailed description and pertinent background quickly. Although a skilled writer can make this work, it’s not one that [Ms. Chester] usually recommend[s].”

I don’t recall if she’s “breaking viewpoint” as she does it, but in the first Harry Potter* JK Rowling introduces the Dursleys this way, with the narrator just telling us about them.

That said, Mr. Stein says, “Don’t ever stop your story to characterize. Avoid telling the reader what your character is like. Let the reader see your characters talking and doing things.”

Method 2: Introduction Through Dialogue

In this method, “two [or more] conversant characters . . . are on the page, discussing the individual who’s about to appear,” says Ms. Chester. “What they say can be true or it can be lies. Either way, they’re influencing readers who must decide for themselves who they’ll believe. . . . Introduction through dialogue is a useful means of planting for later development, hinting at backstory, and bringing up complications.”

If I recall correctly, the Great Gatsby* was introduced this way, with everyone talking about him at a party.

Method 3: Introduction Through Environment

“In this method, the character has not yet entered the story,” says Ms. Chester. “Instead, first the author describes the protagonist’s home . . . [and/or] belongings–whatever will display some of the protagonist’s true nature or the masks she wears.  The surroundings of a character, the possessions, or the home all betray who and what she is. . . . Introduction through surroundings works best for villains and secondary characters, less so sometimes for the protagonist. It provides an intriguing contrast with the actual appearance and demeanor of the character the habitat belongs to.”

Professor Slughorn was introduced this way in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince–the movie,* anyway, not so much the book.*  Actually, in the movie I think Slughorn was introduced through both dialogue and surroundings before he comes out of his chair disguise.

Method 4: Introduction Through Action

“This method is nearly always the most effective and efficient way to bring a character into your story,” says Ms. Chester. “It’s showing the reader your protagonist (or any character) in action, doing or saying something typical of that individual’s personality. . . . It’s active, not static. It can also serve to show the protagonist already in trouble or coping with a problem–which means your setting a hook, creating change in the existing circumstances, raising questions to make readers curious, and pitting the protagonist against conflict–all in the space of a few paragraphs.”

Lots of books open this way, introducing the first character, whether or not the protagonist, through action.  For example, The Da Vinci Code opens with the Louvre curator staggering through the museum.  In the next post, I’ll have some more/better examples of intro-through-action that also reveal character.

Method 5: Physical Description

In this method, the scene’s viewpoint character describes her first impression of the character being introduced as he enters the scene, what he looks like, what his bearing is, and what he’s doing, which usually isn’t active enough to be considered an “action” introduction.

“Use all aspects of your character’s appearance (clothing, hair, body, personal possessions) to build characterization and intrigue the reader,” says Nancy Kress.  “But remember that description almost always comes through another character’s eyes and should reflect the observer’s tastes rather than ‘objective’ reality.”

Characters will stand out for the reader if you show their appearance or behavior making an impression on the viewpoint character.

Also, remember that physical description can (and probably should most often) be characterized through action. Show the character’s physicality affecting how he interacts with the surroundings and/or other characters.

Method 6: Dialogue

In this method, the character speaks first thing, before we see him and before he does anything else.

“Use dialogue to lift your character out of the crowd,” says Laura Whitcomb. “Not all entrances include dialogue . . . but if the character you are introducing speaks when he first appears, make sure he speaks differently from anyone else or have what he says raise him above the crowd.”

Method 7: Thoughts and Introspection

In this method, the scene’s viewpoint character is thinking about something, usually her backstory, but possibly about what she wants.  Janet Evanovich began the first Stephanie Plum book* this way.  I remember her saying, in How I Write,* that she did this so that the reader would know right away that this is a book about Stephanie.

Bonus Method: The Combo Platter

Do consider combining these methods for a standout introduction.

Elements to include in the introduction

No matter which introduction or combination of introductions you use, here are some things you may ultimately want to include.

1. A Physical Description

Mr. Swain says, “Introduce characters realistically. That is, give an impression of the person first,” by which Swain means a physical description.

Ms. Kress says, “What you don’t want is the kind of description that turns up in police reports: ‘Caucasian male, twenty-seven years old, six feet, 170 pounds, short brown hair, blue eyes.'”  Unless, of course, this is the tone you’re going for, or you’re getting the character’s description on the page by someone reading or filling out a police report.

Steven James says, “Regardless of how much or how little you describe a character, readers will form some mental picture of him. So when you first introduce a character, include any physical traits that are significant to the story.”

2. The Characteristic Action

If this sounds like a repeat of the opening section . . . it basically is.

Ms. Chester says, “[M]ake sure the action entry actually fits the character’s personality.”

Jim Butcher says, “A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is. “

“The first time he appears, the character must perform some act that characterizes him. Character can’t be demonstrated save in action,” says Mr. Swain. “The characterizing act must be both pertinent and characteristic. This simply means that you should match characterizing act to role. “

3. The Character’s Want or Need

Mr. Gerke says, “The introduction is the perfect opportunity to reveal what your character is wanting or trying to achieve and what’s likable about her.”

Mr. James says, “Besides physical descriptions, when you first introduce your protagonist, you’ll want to show readers what he’s capable of and what he wants.”

“The core of character, experience tells me, lies in each individual story person’s ability to care about something; to feel, implicitly or explicitly, that something [anything] is important,” says Mr. Swain. “Additionally, it really is inconsequential whether Individual is aware that he feels the way he does. The crucial issue is that the feeling exists to the point that it’s strong enough to move him.”

4. Foreshadow Later Events

Mr. James says, “Besides physical descriptions, when you first introduce your protagonist, you’ll want to show readers what he’s capable of and what he wants.”

Foreshadow “the potential for Character to do whatever his role in the story calls for. . . . [by] plant[ing] within your character the capacity to deal with the demands of your story situation,” says Mr. Swain. “[D]evise incidents that will force your story people to reveal early–or at least hint at–their true natures, in action. Each must display, and thus establish, that aspect of himself which is of top importance to the story.”

Tips on Brainstorming the Character Introduction

Ask yourself, “If you could introduce your main character in the perfect way–given the genre, setting, era, etc., of this [story]–how would you do it?” suggests Mr. Gerke. “To bring your main character onstage the first time, write a short story. Pretend this is a cameo, the only time she’s going to be in the story, but you want to give her an unforgettable moment of glory. Begin with what you have identified as the essence, the core, of this person, and craft an episode around that.”

Ms. Kress says, “The first step is to decide what overall impression you want your character to make to the reader. . . . Next, choose a few visual details that project that image.”

Ms. Whitcomb suggests, “When you are about to introduce your readers to a new character, look back at a description from one of your favorite authors and see what they did that burned that image into your mind.”

Ms. Chester suggests you, “consider the following four questions:

  • What first or lasting impression should my protagonist make on readers?
  • How should I bring my protagonist into the story simply, quickly, and efficiently?
  • How can I demonstrate what kind of person the protagonist is without stopping to dump in his back story?
  • How do I make my protagonist sympathetic and likeable?

The answers to these questions lie partially in the lead’s design and partially in which method of characterization introduction you select.” (The 7 methods are listed above.)

A couple tips specifically on introducing the protagonist

Alex Epstein says, “You may . . . want to introduce the hero alone, at the beginning of the [story]. . . . find a way to show the hero alone, then linking up with” other characters, one at a time.

Mr. Epstein says, “You don’t have to introduce your hero first. . . . Very often in thrillers and action-adventure [stories] you’ll meet the villain first, committing the terrible deed that gets the hero called in to stop him.”

Last Bits of Advice

1. Use Your Words

“Use your effective details the first time we encounter your character,” says Ms. Kress, “so we will want to keep on reading.”

“Sound a call to attention,” says Ms. Whitcomb. “The way you word the entrance should be a clue to the readers that something new is happening” and that “they should pay attention.”

To that end, “Don’t bury your character’s entrance,” says Ms. Whitcomb. “Start a fresh paragraph when you bring in your new character.”

2. Watch Your Pacing

Ms. Swain says, “Don’t bring on too many people at once.”

Mr. Epstein agrees, “Take care to introduce your main characters slowly enough that the reader has a firm grasp of each one before you introduce the next.”

Ms. Chester says, “If you introduce too many characters simultaneously, you run the risk of confusing your reader,” says Ms. Chester. “You don’t have to space each entrance pages apart, but give readers a chance to assimilate them.”

Mr. Epstein says, “If you find that people are having trouble keeping your characters straight, look to how you introduce them.  If too much is going on when we meet them, we may never recover from our confusion.”

“Pacing the introduction of story characters can be tricky,” says Mr. James.  “So as you work on bringing characters on stage, keep asking yourself if you’ve introduced them in the appropriate order, with adequate timing, and with enough detail to help readers picture them.  Readers know you need to introduce them to your characters, so at the beginning of the book they’ll give you some grace as you do so.”

3. Be Careful About Unintentionally Misleading the Reader

Mr. Swain warns against making the reader think one thing about a character, when he’s really another. “[I]f you strike one note at the start of a book, changing the picture in your readers’ minds so they’ll accept that Character was playing a role and had reason for doing so will take careful planning and planting as the story develops.” “The point is that, rightly or wrongly, we do judge by first impressions, and those first impressions are hard to overcome.”

4. Double Duty Your Details

Ms. Kress says, “If you decide to introduce your character to us at a moment of high emotion, pick details that do double duty.”  Meaning they convey her emotion and also show us how she looks or suggest she isn’t always like this or whatever.

5. Dig Deep

Mr. Stein says, “If you develop a characteristic that’s especially pertinent to your character, or original, it’s a good idea to use it on the character’s first appearance, to ‘set’ the character.”

6. Go for it

“Make your character stand out,” says Ms. Whitcomb, either by being “striking to the eye” or, if physically average, “make sure the character behaves in a way that captures the readers’ interest.”

Don’t “lose your nerve and write an entrance that’s too low key,” says Ms. Chester. “Remember this is no time for you to be timid or cautious. You need to cultivate your inner flair for the dramatic, and push yourself past your comfort zone. Readers aren’t going to laugh at a vivid, boldly drawn character. Instead, they might just sit up and think, This person’s interesting.

Top Books on Character Introductions

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Well, that’s it for me

What about you?  What sort of character introduction techniques pique your interest in a character?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up next, in two Wednesdays

We’ll look at how some of the master storytellers introduce some of their greatest characters.  See you then!


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