Monday, March 30, 2009

How to Write Character Introductions

Last week, I wrote about Seth Godin’s idea that we should tell people our super power when we meet them and how that I believe that what we ought to do is introduce others and tell their super power. Today, I want to look at his idea in another way in that I want to talk about how we introduce our characters in our writing.

It may work in the comic books, but in a novel, having a character step into a scene and describe himself is down right lazy. Also, it comes across as hollow or conceited. We naturally feel a little suspicious of self descriptions.

Another method is to have the narrator introduce the character. We tend to believe the narrator. If he says our character is the smartest person in town, he is. If the narrator says a character is beautiful, she is. But this method does have its problems. It doesn’t work well with first person and close third person. Some authors have tried to get around this by having the character look into a mirror so the character can see her reflection and relay the information, but I don’t like this. It would be better for the author to change point of view long enough to describe the character and move on.

What we should hope to do is to reveal the character like we learn about a new friend. We don’t instantly know everything there is to know about someone when we first meet. Each time we spend time with a person we get to know that person better. And so it can be with our characters. We learn more and more as we see them respond to the events that take place in the novel.

There is one slight problem with that. When we meet real people, in person or online, there are hundreds of little signals they send out telling us something about them. We look at their body language. We look at their eyes. The eyes tell us a great deal about what is happening behind them, if anything. We consider where we met them and many other things. We have far fewer things in a novel to tell us about the characters we meet, so as writers we must find ways to overcome this.

We want to give the reader a chance to discover the character rather than memorize a list of facts about him. That means it is especially important in the early scenes with the character that he isn’t doing something ordinary. It is also important that we don’t show the character doing something out of character until after the reader has learned what is in character. If the character hits his wife in the first scene, we’ll believe he is abusive rather than believing that something unusual has caused him to do this thing. If we first see the character help a child, we’ll believe the character is good at heart rather than a villain.

Introducing a character requires a mix of quickly revealing important details and slowly revealing the depth of the character. We always want our characters be in the middle of things, but the character introduction is something we want to remove as far from the character as possible.