Character Introductions: How the Masters Do It

In the last post, we listed seven techniques to use when introducing characters.  Most of the masters use a combination of techniques. Here’s how.

Method 1: Out-of-Viewpoint Description
In this method, the narrator (not a view-point character) tells us about the characters.

JKR uses this method to introduce the Dursleys at the beginning of the first Harry Potter book.

Mr Dursley was the directer of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

pg 7, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Method 2: Introduction Through Dialogue
In this method other characters talk about the character being introduced before the character makes an appearance on the page.

There’s a character introduction in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol that has stuck in my mind since I first read it, and it involves this technique.  A security guard in the Capital Rotunda answers a ringing phone.

“Chief?” The guard was holding the phone out to him like a hot potato. “You need to take this call right now. It’s . . .” He paused and silently mouthed two syllables. “SA-TO.”

pg 63, The Lost Symbol

They go on to discuss and think about Sato (“Sato knows all.” pg 64) before Director Sato is actually on the page (by dialogue, see below).

(I loved how this formidable, scary person turned out to be a tiny woman.  Talk about character contradictions.)

Method 3: Introduction Through Environment
In this method, the author describes the character’s home or town or other defining surroundings.

Janet Evanovich used this technique to introduce Stephanie Plum in the first Stephanie Plum book.

Morelli and I were both born and raised in a blue-collar chunk of Trenton called the Burg. Houses were attached and narrow. Yards were small. Cars were American. The people were mostly of Italian descent, with enough Hungarians and Germans thrown in to offset inbreeding. It was a good place to buy calzone or play the numbers. And if you had to live in Trenton anyway, it was an okay place to raise a family.

pg 1, One For the Money


Method 4: Introduction Through Action
In this method, the character is introduced in the middle of an action that characterizes him.

Rocky, by Sylvester Stallone
The movie opens with Rocky in a boxing match he wins only because his opponent does something unsportsmanlike that makes him mad.  Up until then, Rocky’s making a half-ass effort, but afterwards he’s invested enough to heart-up and win.  This action introduction tells us:  (i) what the movie’s about (boxing, performance genre), (ii) who Rocky is/what his main obsession is (boxer/boxing), and (iii) what Rocky’s flaw is (he’s given up, making a half-ass effort, not just at boxing, but at life).

Michael Connelly tends to use this method to introduce Harry Bosch:

Bosch was in cell 3 of the old San Fernando jail, looking through files from one of the Esme Tavares boxes .

. . .

[Upon learning that he has unannounced visitors from the LAPD and DA’s office], he opened the memo app on his phone and turned on the recorder. . . . It was a just-in-case move. . . . he knew that the surprise visit was often a tactical move. Bosch’s relationship with the LAPD since his forced retirement three years earlier had been strained at best and his attorney had urged him to protect himself by documenting all interactions with the department.

pg 3-4, Two Kinds of Truth

Method 5: Physical Description
In this method, the scene’s viewpoint character describes her first impression of the character.

Here’s Janet Evanovich managing to make your basic physical description hilarious.

If Lula was a pastry she’d be a big chocolate cupcake with a lot of frosting. I’d be more of a croissant with a ponytail. I have curly shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes, and some people think I look like Julia Roberts on her day off.

. . .

Lula is a couple inches shorter than me and has about twice as much flesh. Much of the flesh is boob.

pg 2-5 Hardcore Twenty-Four


Method 6: Dialogue
In this method, the character speaks first thing, before we see him and before he does anything else.

Back to Director Sato, from the Dan Brown intro-through-dialogue example.  Here’s the first thing Director Sato says (before we see her (or know she’s female) and before she does anything else):

Anderson took the phone and brought it to his lips. “Director Sato,” he said in as friendly a voice as possible. “This is Chief Anderson. How may I–“

“There is a man in your building to whom I need to speak immediately.” The OS director’s voice was unmistakable–like gravel grating on a chalkboard. Throat cancer surgery had left Sato with a profoundly unnerving intonation and a repulsive neck scar to match. “I want you to find him for me immediately.”

pg 64, The Lost Symbol

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.

There are some men who enter a woman’s  life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me–not forever, but periodically.

opening lines, One For the Money

She uses the introspection technique a lot.  Here it is again:

My name is Stephanie Plum. I work as a bond enforcement officer in Trenton, New Jersey, and Simon was in violation of his bond.

pg 1, Hardcore Twenty-Four


Well, that’s it for me. How about you?  What are some of your favorite character introductions?  Tell us in the comments!



Yeah . . . I’ve got some character tools that don’t lend themselves to master or own-work examples because the work happens mostly off-page.  So I’m going to post those tools and then, hopefully, do one all-encompassing Own Work Post. So in two Mondays we’ll have a post on Characterization. See you then!

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