Some of the manuscripts I look at start with a whole lot of action performed by “he” and “she,” a pair just as full of life as the smiley faces in the picture. Whoever “he” and “she” are, they’re fighting or fleeing or hanging by their fingertips from the edge of a cliff. And they’re talking to each other. He says This! and she says That!—and I don’t have a clue what’s going on. It could be that the action is enough to keep me going until the author gets around to telling me who these people are and why I should care, but would it hurt for me to know a little earlier?
Maybe so, in thrillers, suspense, mystery novels that open with anyone other than the main character, but authors in other genres don’t really have a good reason to keep the characters’ identities from their readers. It doesn’t add to the mystique of the novel, but it can add to the reader’s frustration while he tries to figure out what’s going on.
Dialogue and action occurring by nameless, faceless characters don’t usually draw readers into the story. Identifying your characters and dropping tidbits about their personalities in the opening scene can make the difference between a reader rubbernecking an accident as he drives by and having him jump from his own vehicle to rescue the victims in the other.
In other words, get your readers to bond with your characters early, and one way to do that is to let the reader know who they are.
Before you jump on me about writing all sorts of character backstory in the opening chapter, let me assure you, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about presenting your character with his first and last name. I’m talking about the little things that help your reader get a handle on your character’s personality.
These are the opening paragraphs from one of my WIPs, Corporate Ladder:
Cleveland. C-Town. Home of the Indians, the Browns, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–and C&M’s Burgers & Dogs, one of the best hamburger hole-in-the-wall dives in Ohio. And the only thing Debra Chandler really missed about her hometown.
She parked her rented black Mustang in the last parallel spot available on a street lined with ancient office buildings and boarded-up store windows. With its cracked, dull yellow brick and faded green canopy over a door covered with posters and notices interesting only to those in the immediate neighborhood, C&M’s still looked the same. It smelled the same, too. Even from the sidewalk, she felt she could reach into the air and snatch a crispy onion ring. She quick-stepped through the door, glanced past the few people chatting over afternoon pie and coffee in sagging vinyl booth seats, and smiled at the familiar round shape wiping the countertop.
Old Liza Lou Carter looked up, her black cheeks lifting in a grin. “Deb-bie-Poo! How-do-you-do!”
Almost immediately after this, I get to the story: Liza Lou tells Debbie that her mother is in the hospital after being thrown off the front porch by a jealous live-in. I could have started with the hospital scene, but then, the reader would never get to see this side of Debbie’s personality. From here, this side of Debbie won’t be seen again. Showing character interaction is one way to illustrate her personality–which is a way of getting your reader to develop an opinion of your character and bond with her on some level (or not, but this isn’t a discussion of bad-guy protagonists).
In a contest I judged once, I read a manuscript written by someone who knew how to draw the readers to her characters instantly. I don’t remember the story and don’t know the author, so what follows here is just a rendition of what I read:
Constance Peters rested semi-comfortably on the white sheets and watched the monitor, the peaks of her heartbeat chasing each other along the screen. As long as the chase continued, she’d be all right.
Bryce, her husband of fifteen years, squeezed her hand. “I could almost write a song to that beat.”
Smiling, she shifted her eyes toward him, and was touched by the flush in his cheeks. He apparently knew how feeble his attempt at humor had been, but it didn’t matter. His lame jokes could still make her laugh, even at times like this.
Three short paragraphs let us in to this couple’s private life. They love each other.
What do your opening paragraphs say about your characters?
Character Intro vs. Deep POV
One of the reasons authors have given me why they didn’t identify their characters is because they don’t believe it fits with the deep POV they’re trying to achieve. People don’t think of themselves in terms of first and last name. The argument is valid if their story is told in first person. Introducing your main character in first person can be tricky.
Third person offers more leeway, because third person is told through a camera lens. Have you seen the camera commercial where the guy is standing on the bridge, zooming his lens back and forth and screaming as he simulates a bungee jump? That lens-zooming reminds me of how deep third person works. Although actually describing the character isn’t allowed, the camera can pull away from the character long enough to name him and put him in a setting. Long enough to let us know something about him.
First person is far trickier because, by definition, we’re supposed to already be under the character’s skin. And people “don’t think of themselves in terms of first and last name.” The best thing to do at this point is to bring in another character who can introduce your main character. I had it easy for The Cat Lady’s Secret because Millie doesn’t have a last name:
With the ties of her green apron flopping with each step, Annie Crawley rushes out of the Down Home Diner and quicksteps across the red brick street, just beating the traffic light. She swipes her mud-brown hair from her eyes, mouths “Hi, Millie” at me, and plops on the other end of my bench on the courthouse lawn with a phone at her ear. Her place on the bench is perfect, because now I can eavesdrop. And judging by angle of her brows over her nose, I certainly need to. If anyone can help her with whatever etched those stress lines around her eyes, it’s me.
This wouldn’t work with an MC that had a last name, but there are tricks that do. Let’s say the MC is Chester Wortham:
“Well, Chester Wortham, as I live and breathe!”
Some guy I didn’t recognize grabbed my hand and pumped it like an oil derek.
“Chester Wortham! You get in here!” Mom sounded mad. Only time she called me by my full name was when she was mad.
“Chester Wortham, if you don’t stop tickling me . . . !” I didn’t stop tickling. I loved the sound of her laughter too much.
Is your piece in first person? Have you introduced your main character in the opening paragraphs? How did you do it?
Whatever you do, however you do it, it will beat having a bunch of flat smiley-faces, because giving your characters names and personalities is the first step toward rounding them out.
Coming Friday: Tone and Setting Description
Breast Cancer Journal Update:
For those of you who are familiar with my recent diagnosis of breast cancer, here’s the update. Surgery went well last Wednesday, and I’m feeling fine today. But the path report came back inconclusive as to whether my margins are clean. The surgeon has sent the tissue sample to another lab for a second opinion, and I should know the results in two weeks.
As always, prayers are appreciated!