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.
“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 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.