3 Ways To Establish Characters Quickly

I love a fascinating story world and I go nuts for an original concept, but the one story element that pulls me in faster than any other is character. The moment I feel I understand  the protagonist is the moment I’m hooked.

Since my upcoming YA novel Futures features five main characters, I’m facing the extra challenge of making five important character introductions. I’ve thought a lot about how to help a reader quickly understand what makes characters tick. Here are three methods I’ve observed for establishing characters quickly.

Give an Impression, Not a Description

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

C. S. Lewis’ opening line for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader gives us an immediate impression of the main character. We don’t yet know what Eustace looks like, how old he is, or where he lives–but we get the idea that he’s not a pleasant guy.

Screenwriters use this trick when they introduce a character in a script. They provide just enough details to give an impression of a character, even while limiting physical description. Here’s the intro for a character in the screen adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

SAM (17) would make every mother proud and every father nervous. She is alive, adventurous, and a worldclass flirt.

This exact phrasing wouldn’t work in a novel because it’s more telling than showing. But that first part is great, and I could see it working well in prose. It tells you a lot more about Sam than a rundown of her facial features or clothing would.

Provide Contrast

“Gorillas are patient as stones. Humans, not so much.” –The One and Only Ivan

Sometimes the best way to tell us who a character is, is by telling us who he’s not. As with Ivan the gorilla, characters stand out when they are surrounded by people who are different from them or put in settings where they don’t belong:

  • Harry is the boy wizard who doesn’t belong in the terribly ordinary Dursley household.
  • Katniss is the hunter who will do what it takes to provide for her family while her mother will not.
  • Park is quiet and intelligent compared to “the morons at the back of the bus.”

Hint at Their Problem

“The only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.” –Wonder

The main character of R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, a boy with a facial deformity, tells us his problem on the first page. We get August right then. We realize first that he’s an ordinary kid. We also realize that he’s misunderstood, that he’s insightful, and that he’s going to be totally frank with us despite whatever misconceptions we might have about him.

In Courtney Summers’ Cracked Up To Be, one of the first things Parker tells the reader is, “I look like shit today for a variety of reasons…” and then admits that she might flunk high school. We’re picturing rumpled clothes and messy hair, but more importantly, we’re getting a feel for Parker as someone who’s troubled and off-track.

There are definitely a lot more ways to introduce characters. What other methods do you think help establish character quickly? What are some of your favorite character introductions?

parker photoParker Peevyhouse loves puzzles of all types and is always up for a game of Clue. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut YA novel, FUTURES, will be published by Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin in 2015.

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20 Comments

Filed under Character Development, craft~writing, Writing

20 responses to “3 Ways To Establish Characters Quickly

  1. Hi Parker, your post gives me food for thought. Thanks for sharing your ideas. I’m developing my writing voice/style at the moment and the idea of what to bait the hook with is always at the forefront of my mind. I thought I didn’t have any characters in my short stories but on reflection maybe I do. I’m working on a short story at the moment that I’ll post just after midnight tomorrow. I’ll look at it again with your words in mind. Thanks!, Kevin.

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  2. Lindsey Lane

    Good Morning, Parker. Wow. Nice craft talk first think/g in the am. I’m currently reading THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (I know it took a while to get to) and I’m noticing how Green creates bedrock of cancer and then shows how his characters maneuver around it, how Augustus must get close to the shrapnel of Hazel’s cancer, despite having lost his own leg. Each of them persists in their own unique way.

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    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Thanks, Lindsey. I admit I haven’t read that one yet. (I’m probably the only one–I even overheard a group of teens gushing about it yesterday in the store!)

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  3. Excellent post, Parker!! Character is the big Number One for me when I read a book, too! There are several books I absolutely love that are so character driven that I really don’t care if it doesn’t have much of a plot. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, for example. All about the characters. Thanks for this! You said everything so very well 🙂

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    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I love that book. I think that’s the kind of book where the setting really helps define the characters–a big, tumbledown castle where everyone is struggling for money, attention, love… and writing ideas! 🙂

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  4. Joshua McCune

    What a brilliant post, Parker. Something that I definitely need to work on in my writing… those quick hitting sentences that say a whole lot more than the few words that are written.

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    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Thanks, Joshua. I think it’s really helpful to look at screenplays for this reason–they have to give you a quick line so you know how to envision the actor, but it can’t be something that only describes appearances since you want the role to be available to multiple actors.

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  5. I grew up on C.S. Lewis so I love that you used that quote! This is a wonderful post and very helpful! One of my favorite recent character introductions is in “The Lace Reader,” where the narrator tells you on the very first page not to trust her, but then proceeds to write (speak) so vividly, you completely forget her warning and end up believing everything she says.

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    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I did too! The Lace Reader sounds intriguing. The way you describe the opening makes me think of Liar by Justine Larbalestier.

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  6. Great post, Parker. I totally agree – it’s all about character. I don’t really care what’s happening, if I don’t care whom it’s happening to. These are excellent strategies for getting character across.

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  7. Craig Forsyth

    Very, very useful analysis. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Fabulous post, Parker! I love the practical and insightful nature of your discussion. So true that a well-developed character is at the heart of every book, but it’s so hard to master. We writers really must walk in our characters’ shoes, don’t we?

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  9. Great examples, Parker. You’re right, the character is what sells the story and the “showing not telling” is what makes them the most interesting.

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  10. Parker Peevyhouse

    I do think it all comes down to “show not tell.” Great point.

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  11. This is a great post, Parker. Good food for thought as I’m working on my WIP. And by the way, love your bio–I am also always up for a game of Clue!

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