It has come to my attention that not everyone understands the absolute necessity of a great first introduction for your characters?!
Seriously, when you introduce a character in your story, a first impression is everything. A good intro will make a character easier to remember AND solidify whatever character arc they end up progressing through during the story. Basically, you can get a lot of work done in just this one scene, so don’t waste it!
The trick? The key to a great character introduction is Show instead of Tell.
Also, as a side note: Don’t believe everything you’ve heard about “Show don’t tell.” There are times for showing and times for telling, so neither one is inherently bad. But in the case of introducing a character for the first time, “Show” is the better option. 🙂
Know your Introduction Goals.
As with any scene you write, there should be a goal in mind.
There should be some point you’re trying to get across to a reader, and something more in-depth than “make this character known.”
Please note this applies to main and support characters, not George at the cash register who has a single line of dialogue. You don’t need a fancy introduction for characters that simply don’t matter. That said, you should take time to craft a solid introduction for any character that’s important to your plot. So take some time to brainstorm a good setup!
When introducing a character, you typically have three goals:
- Who are they?
This might mean their name, career, role, etc. We don’t have to know everything up front, but think of it like answering “what is their relationship to the main character?” This can help us establish some context for how the character fits into the world we already know so far.
It could be first glance expectation and/or stereotype. We’re going for a first impression, and those aren’t always 100% accurate. Examples: student. thief. jock. babysitter.
- What are they like?
Personality-wise, mostly. We should see some bits of who they are start to shine through, even though again, we don’t know everything. A great intro will be fitting with who they are (such as their character core values), what they value and care about, etc.
- Why are they important?
Basically, their role in the story. Main character or supporting character? Hero, villain, or unsure?
NOTE: You don’t HAVE to have these three goals. And you can choose to answer them however you want.
We’re going to get into some examples later on, so seeing these questions answered in context should explain it better than vague bullet points!
Staging and Dialogue
My favorite way to answer those “goal” questions is with two good friends of ours: staging and dialogue.
Staging is the physical location or position of your character when we first see them. Body language should hint at their personality. Yeah, this is a place where we as readers might make assumptions. If you want to steer them one way or the other, you can drop hints or let your narrator make some assumptions themselves.
Let’s say it’s Mary’s first day at her new school, and we want to introduce her to Carson. (PS: Mary and Carson are the creations of this moment, not previously made characters. So yes, this technique can be applied on the fly.)
When Mary sits down, Carson’s head is buried in his arms and he’s sleeping on his desk. There are about 5 minutes until class starts. Is he lazy? Tired? Maybe it’s a medical issue? You can wake up Carson and find out, or if you want to drop a hint right away, here’s your opportunity.
- We’re going for lazy. His hood (or hat) is drawn over his head, suggesting that he’s trying to block out the noise and/or light so he can sleep in peace. If he’s sleeping on a book, it’s closed. Other than that maybe the desk is empty.
- We’re going to tired and overworked. His pencil is still in his hand and he’s sleeping on an open book or some sort of assignment. When he shifts position we can see pen or pencil smudged on his cheek.
And that’s how you “show” a character through the medium of staging! Staging and some inventory, if you add a book or a pencil that gives even more hint at what they’re doing.
We never said “he’s lazy” or “he’s exhausted” because we can see him right there at the desk sleeping. It speaks for itself. Even before he says anything, we have some hints towards his personality.
Will these first impressions be proved wrong? Proved right?? Only time will tell. And frankly, we don’t need to know if that’s the truth right now or not. The important part: Mary’s taken notice, and she’s already formed some opinions. This will serve as the starting point for their relationship.
Similarly, the first dialogue exchanged between two characters should be out of the ordinary. After all, characters don’t always say the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s more interesting to watch characters sidestep their way through a conversation.
This depends, of course, and there are exceptions. But typically you might want to avoid their first words being “Hi, I’m Carson.” Again, see if it can speak directly to who they are and what they want.
I double check the number by the door. Unless my schedule’s wrong, this is it. Biology. Frog dissection, reproductive cells, and Mendel’s pea pod experiment. Great.
Despite the heart-to-heart Mom and I shared, I sit by the kid who’s sprawled over his desk. One less person to talk to is always a plus in my book. Besides, if the back of his head is anything to judge by, it never hurts to sit by some eye candy.
I’ve just taken out my biology book when a pair of jocks squeeze past my desk and towards the back of the room. They bump sleeper’s desk, too, because a pen rolls from his stuff and hits the floor with a smack.
“Sorry dude,” one says, giving the sleeper a friendly back pat.
At the contact the kid jolts awake, then blinks at whatever book he fell asleep on as if it’s written in another language. The sharp intake of breath that follows sounds suspiciously close to a choked gasp.
I eye him sideways. Dark hair, fair-featured. Then he’s whipping his head around the room. Around us, the rest of the students are still in various stages of milling with no obvious commitment to staying or leaving. I don’t recognize anyone, so I’m not entirely sure who he’s hoping to see.
Finally, the kid turns a pair of impressive blue eyes on me. “Did I—” he starts, his mouth flopping open. “Hey, what class is this? Biology? Oh God, I’m so dead. What class is this?” he asks again.
“Musical theory of the 1780s,” I respond automatically. The sarcasm in my voice is obvious to me, at least.
“What? Really?” Sleeper closes the bio book he was snoozing on and starts stuffing things into his backpack like a robber at a bank. For a sec, I’m frozen. I was kidding. I was obviously kidding. I shift my biology textbook into his view, then lift my eyebrows in telepathic communication. Dumbass.
“Oh. Oh, okay. Haha. Good. Thank God.” He leans back in his seat with a gust of pent up breath. “Musical theory in a school like this? Funny. I should have known you were kidding.”
The conversation is over, so we lapse into silence. I take out my pen. Check the time. Two more minutes.
“Hey, are you new?” I glance back over at him, and his eyes are wide like that possibility had just struck him.
I give him another look. “Nah, I just always sit in the back.”
I’m stuck between amused and downright embarrassed for the kid. I settle for a grin. “Wow. You’re way too easy.”
So what all can we guess about the characters based on all this? Yes, there was some telling. It’s not a crime. It should just be mostly showing and letting the reader interpret it as they want to. When it comes to first impressions, having to rely on observations and guesses puts you in the same position as your character. They don’t quite know what to make of this new character, so neither should a reader.
Your readers are not stupid. They can read into a character’s expressions if you put those hints in there. When in doubt, have faith in them! You can always adjust as necessary when you get feedback from your beta readers.
As for those questions:
- Who is he? A student. Mary’s classmate. We have some context of how Carson fits into her life on a logistical level. We also see what he looks like.
- What are they like? As a reader, I’d guess Carson is a bit high-strung based on his frantic replies to Mary. He cares about his schoolwork/grades enough to stress about it. He might be the kind of person who honestly tries (since he arrived to class early enough to get out his homework and then fall asleep before finishing it), but can’t seem to stay on top of things despite his efforts. Since he believes Mary so easily, he’s a bit gullible.
- Why are they important? Since this first interaction was friendly and laid back, we can assume he’ll become Mary’s friend and a supporting character in her life.
We’ve answered all the questions, which helps readers establish who he is and how he fits into everything. That said, we don’t know everything. And I, for one, am curious about who he is and what’s going on in his life to make him tired enough to fall asleep on his desk.
We have an entire book to learn more about him. But for now, at least, we have a solid framework to watch him grow from.
Closing thought: Don’t tell us who these people are. Just show us.
Yes, your viewpoint character is allowed to make observations and form opinions, but as long as you don’t impose their thoughts on a reader then it doesn’t fit the bad side of “telling.”
Also, don’t study this as if it were a formula. Staging+ Dialogue does not equal a great introduction.
Sometimes the dialogue is first. Sometimes the action. Sometimes one of them is missing. Sometimes you’ve got a single word of dialogue and a few minutes of extended action. Each introduction will be drastically different between different characters. It’s about a vivid, perhaps exaggerated first impression.
What are some of your favorite character introduction scenes?
Personally, I’m thinking about Cinder’s reintroduction scene in Scarlet by Marissa Meyers. We’re in a prison cell with a brand new narrator, and then Cinder kicks open a vent and drops down from above. It was such a visual and hilarious way to reintroduce her to us after the first book! 🙂