Plot to Punctuation Logo

Archives for December, 2010

How to establish your characters: openings

Among the many jobs a book’s opening needs to accomplish, one of the more important is to establish your book’s characters. You need to let your readers know who the players are, what their relationships are (at least initially), and enough about what kind of people they are that readers can develop a sensibility about how these people are likely to act.

It’s a tall order, but there are some core strategies you can use to help achieve these goals, while at the same time moving your story forward.

Show your characters in action

First, please, show your characters in action. Show them doing something. And I don’t mean walking down the street. Show them in the act of attempting to achieve a goal, prevent something bad from happening, et cetera. I don’t really care what it is, just show them trying. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, but readers need to see the effort and the reason for it is pretty simple. Seeing the effort reassures us that this is a character who will be worth watching for 300 pages.

When your book’s opening shows us a guy walking down the street, or a lady sitting at her kitchen table having tea as her day begins, that’s not very interesting. It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in that character as being someone who can bear the heavy load of being a protagonist. Nobody wants to spend 300 pages with a character who doesn’t do anything.

This is not to say that you can’t put a guy walking down the street on page one. You can. But you need to show us why that’s interesting. You need to do something with that scene that allows the character to make a meaningful choice or take a meaningful action. Maybe the guy is in Chicago for a job interview, trying to make his way on foot from his hotel, only he isn’t quite sure which way to go. He’s going to have to choose whether to go left, right, or straight, and his choice is critical to arriving at the interview on time.

Show your characters in conflict

Within the action, look for ways to put your characters in conflict. Conflict, in novel-writing terms, is any situation in which a character’s goals are impeded by something. Could be an explicit antagonist trying to mess up the protagonist’s plans. Could be a physical obstacle, a raging river that was only marked as a stream on the map. It could be a situation, not enough dinner to feed the family and the surprise guest/business associate the thoughtless husband brought home. The obstacle could be internal, as in the interviewee’s lack of knowledge of how to get around the streets of Chicago.

Again, the reason why conflict is an effective characterization tool is simple: the conflict itself forces characters to respond. In watching their responses, we learn about them. Does the interview guy stop to ask directions, or does he wander around hoping for the best? Does he call to warn the prospective employer he might be late, or does he arrive tardy with some half-baked excuse about the hotel’s wake-up call being late? A character’s response to any conflict tells us a great deal about who that person is.

Conflict is also dramatic. Conflict carries with it the implicit threat of failure. The guy might actually be late for the interview, heightening the stress of an already stressful situation. The raging river might sweep away the frontier family’s horse and wagon, greatly increasing the danger that they won’t make it to California. Opening your book with a strong conflict for your character to face is a wonderful way to kick things off with a bang.

And speaking of the threat of failure, I would argue that in your book’s opening, the stronger choice is usually to let the character fail. Let him be late and lose the job. Don’t just give the family a moment of panic when the horse stumbles halfway across the river, but let the river win. The reason for this, too, is simple: failure throws the characters’ plans into disarray, and forces them to react. Just as with watching them respond, their reaction to failure teaches us a great deal about them.

Open your book by putting your characters in conflict situations, so we can watch their response, the outcome, and their subsequent reaction.

Create mysteries about your characters

So you’ve created a conflict situation, put your characters into a stance of action, the question then becomes how can you work the character’s choices and actions in order to deeply hook the reader? You can create mysteries.

The idea here is to show something unexpected about your character, something that is naturally applicable to the scene, without explaining it. Show us a skill, a talent, an attitude we’re not expecting. Maybe the interviewee stops a random person on the street, and smooth-talks that person not into giving him directions but in fact escorting him by cab to his destination and paying the cab fare for him. We’re likely to be surprised and intrigued to see such a display of charisma and persuasion. After the horse goes under, maybe the father also falls into the river and is only saved by his wife’s quick-thinking and dead-eye aim with a lasso. We’re likely to wonder how she came to have such impressive rope skills.

But don’t explain. Let us wonder. The reader’s curiosity is your most powerful asset, and if you can show us something we don’t quite understand, we become wildly curious to learn the backstory behind it. Don’t give it to us. This is the wrong time for a backstory infodump. Make us read onward into the story in order to learn why the character can do those things.

For instance, maybe the interviewee used to be a ... no. I’m not going to tell you now, here in the opening of this three-blog-post series. I’ll tell you in the next installment about what to do in the middle of the book, and ditto for frontier-woman and her rope-work. See? Now aren’t you at least a little bit curious how they came by those abilities?

I should warn, though, there is a danger to be aware of: if what you show the reader is so surprising and unusual that we can’t even imagine how it’s possible for the character to do that, then what you’ve created isn’t mystery but incongruity. Maybe it really does make sense in light of backstory you don’t want to give us yet, but you can’t let the reader think it’s just some weird, crazy thing you pulled out of your butt in order to concoct an exciting opening. That’s a sure way to lose the reader. So, if the thing you reveal is that surprising, what you can do is let other people in the scene wonder, too. That reassures readers that you know what you’re doing. That you understand how hard it is to believe what they just read, but that you have a plan and all will be revealed in good time.

Illustrate key personality traits

Again, readers want to know what kind of people they’re dealing with. Particularly helpful is when you can illustrate a personality trait that is at the heart of the arc you’ll be putting that character through. Perhaps your protagonist is a bit of a shrinking violet in the beginning, afraid to take risks and make sacrifices. Imagine you have in mind that by the end of the book he will be called upon to take a significant risk, and that his ability to do it stems from the personal growth he experiences during the story. While you could open your book with something like this:

Charlie was the kind of guy who held back, never giving his all.

you’ll do much better to illustrate that trait in the course of an early scene. Readers will believe it a lot more strongly if you make them understand that for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding it to them. So you’ll put Charlie in a position where he could take a risk, but doesn’t.

Maybe he has joined an Ultimate Frisbee team because the woman he’s interested in plays on it. Other players routinely make leaps and diving catches, but not Charlie. At a critical moment during a big game, Charlie doesn’t dive for a pass he could have caught, resulting in the other team taking possession, and Charlie’s team losing the game.

His teammates chew him out for it. “What’s the matter with you? You totally could have caught that if you’d tried!” Charlie, of course, will have a perfectly good rationalization for his behavior. “Why should I risk injuring myself diving to catch a frisbee? It’s just a game.”

Seeing those events transpire will be a hundred times more convincing than simply telling us that Charlie’s a milquetoast fellow. It does so through action and conflict, thus keeping our interest high. And it sets up his overall character arc, so that by the end of the story when he finally learns that sometimes risks and sacrifices are necessary, his eventual act of bravery will hit home much stronger.

Opening Goals

To sum up, your book’s opening needs to do these things:

  • Show us who the character is.

  • Make us curious about that person.

  • Give us a reason to care about the person.

You do this because your opening scenes and chapters need to hook the reader. Part of your hook comes through the (hopefully) intriguing nature of the situation you show. But the other part, and I would argue the larger part, comes through your characters. Novels are ultimately about characters doing things. Trying to affect the course of events. Your opening needs a hook, but your characters are the bait.

Next: part 2, How to establish your characters: middles >.

December 17, 2010 19:02 UTC

Tags: character, action, conflict, show don't tell, mystery, curiosity, personality, character arc

Permalink Permalink | Comments 12 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!