Critique: 6 Tips for Introducing Characters


Most of the time, I hate real-life introductions. For one thing, I almost always forget the person’s name in the rush of shaking hands, smiling, and saying something charmingly banal. Then there’s the small talk, important but often tedious. Squirm. But that’s most of the time—because occasionally I run into one of those special people who is just brilliant at introductions. You know the ones. Just like a good hook in a story, these people immediately grab your attention. You go from being interested in getting to the point to being interested in them.

That, right there, is the main secret in introducing characters in your story, especially in the first chapter when you’re using these characters to hook readers into sticking around past the small talk.

Successfully introducing characters in a way that highlights all their fantastic potential is one of the trickiest parts of writing a strong first chapter. Part of this challenge is that these characters must indeed offer potential. Experienced readers are quick to intuit that flat character introductions signal characters who lack staying power to support an entire story.

Then there’s the technical challenges of choosing the right descriptive details to show who these characters are, without bogging down the story in too much early information. When introducing multiple characters at once (as you almost always will be), the challenge increases, since you also have to juggle dialogue attributions, multiple descriptions, motivations, subtext, and more.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the seventh in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Kelly Cliff for sharing from her urban fantasy Urban Warriors. She noted:

I guess my main concerns are if I’m handling dialogue well and making things interesting, as well as making sure my characters’ personalities feel different from each other while not straight-up telling everything about them. This is a first draft so it needs work.

Let’s take a look! The bolded entries and subscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.

“Eva, nice to see you. Come in.”1

She2 couldn’t help tugging at her hoodie as she entered. Her torn black jeans and old checkered shirt contrasted sharply with Greg’s suit and the beautiful entryway.3

“Blitz!”

A large green blanket hit him in the face.4 With a grunt he pulled it off of his head. Carissa5 rushed down the stairs after it, today clad in an octopus-themed sweatshirt and rainbow jeans.

“Oh, hi Eva. Blitz, you lost and now you need to wear that.”

A frown formed on his brow. “A blanket?”

“No, silly!” She grabbed the fabric and shook it out to reveal a dinosaur suit. “It took a long time to find that. All day, remember?”

This time real panic etched his face. “Today?”

Eva covered her mouth with her hand. Only a suspicion of a laugh escaped. She coughed.

Rogue6, I have to go to court today!”

The girl6 shrugged. “Rules are rules. Sorry, gotta run!” She hurried out the door.

6 Tips for Introducing Characters Without Confusing Readers

Speaking generally, you have two basic goals to accomplish when you introduce characters.

Get Readers Interested in the Characters

This involves injecting your characters’ unique personalities into their introductory descriptions, actions, and dialogue—so readers will get a sense of these people as quickly as possible and be intrigued by their personalities, dichotomies, and humanity (or lack thereof). Basically, this is the essence of a well-drawn Characteristic Moment.

Keep Readers Oriented

In trying to introduce all the most interesting aspects of a character(s), we end up juggling a lot of information. Most of the time, the true trick is to distill all that info into tiny cues that don’t slow down the story’s forward progression. Regardless the actual amount of info you’re sharing, you must share it in an organized way that allows readers to assimilate it without confusion, so they can move on with a clear idea of the new characters.

In short, your ultimate goal in introducing characters should be to bring them onstage with the least amount of information possible but in a such a way that even small walk-on characters are easily memorable when they re-enter the story later on.

Readers should never have to ask, “Who?

That said, let’s take a look at a few ways Kelly can tighten up her characters’ introductory scene to achieve these two goals.

1. Establish Unique Character Voices Right Away

Some of the most important words a character will ever speak are his first words. Ideally, the first words out of a character’s mouth should immediately give readers a sense of who this person is. You can accomplish this via a number of nuances, including:

  • What the character says.
  • Why the character says what he says.
  • The specific word choices that indicate background, personality, mood, and intention.
  • The accompanying body language and action beats that further clarify (or perhaps contrast) the actual dialogue.

This is doubly important when an opening line of dialogue not only introduces the character but also the story itself, as in Kelly’s excerpt: “Eva, nice to see you. Come in.” This is a reasonable way for just about any person to acknowledge another person. But by that very credibility, it doesn’t offer much in the way of personality. It would be better to introduce the speaker with a line of dialogue that only he would say.

2. Name Characters When Necessary to Avoid Confusion

It’s almost always preferable to name characters as soon as you introduce them. Even when a character’s name is made clear in the dialogue, it’s still usually best to anchor her identity by repeating it in the text rather than opting for the greater narrative intimacy but also greater potential for confusion offered by a pronoun.

In the excerpt, the speaking character names the POV character—“Eva.” But because we don’t yet know the speaker, we can’t be certain the “she” that opens the next paragraph isn’t the speaker, rather than Eva. Even if readers orient quickly, there’s still the risk of that initial blip of confusion—which is definitely not something to take a chance on in the opening paragraphs. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix. All you have to do is name the character.

3. Deftly Weave in Personal Descriptors

Descriptions are tricky, especially in openings, since they can easily careen into info-dump territory. But they’re also extremely important, since they not only ground the scene, but also allow you to add further introductory details. Describing a character’s appearance, clothing, and personal environment can offer a great deal of information in as little as a sentence.

Kelly does a perfect job with this, via a quick contrast of the characters’ clothing. She doesn’t overdo it, and it feels unobtrusive since the description is both quick and pertinent—it hints at the protagonists’s inner feelings about herself, the other character, and the setting.

4. Ground Characters in the Setting

Just as important as introducing the characters themselves is introducing the setting in which they’re acting. Not only will the setting help you define them (i.e., how comfortable they are in this place), it also gives readers something to visualize. However, this only works if readers feel grounded enough within the setting to understand where the various characters are positioned.

This becomes even more important when additional characters enter the scene. Readers need to understand from where the new characters are entering and where they are positioned in relation to the already introduced characters.

Kelly introduces a third character onto the scene by describing the protagonist’s first awareness of her: a blanket flying through the air out of nowhere. Although this is an accurate description of the protagonist’s experience, it’s potentially disorienting for readers who currently lack enough information to visualize the scene. Also, unlike the protagonist, readers have no idea what the blanket may signify, since they don’t yet know of Carissa’s existence and aren’t able to quickly recognize that a flying blanket probably originated with a lively friend.

The flying blanket does seem a good Characteristic Moment of Carissa. But it would be better to at least indicate from where the blanket came flying (the stairs), or perhaps even to immediately indicate that the blanket was thrown (instead of materializing). Even giving Carissa’s initial bit of dialogue (“Blitz!”) a speaker tag would help, since readers don’t yet have any reason to think that line is spoken by someone other than the two already-introduced characters.

5. Separate New Actors/Speakers With New Paragraphs

Especially in scenes in which you will be introducing a number of characters in a short amount of time, you will want to do everything possible to streamline the experience and avoid confusion. One of the simplest ways to do this is to make sure you’re correctly using paragraph breaks to guide your readers’ experience (something we’ve talked about in a previous critique post).

Just as we separate multiple speakers’ dialogue onto separate paragraphs, we should also separate multiple actors’ actions. When Carissa arrives on the scene, her initial action (throwing the blanket) should be separated from Greg’s reaction, then separated again from her running down the stairs. Her first line of dialogue could then be attached to her action paragraph.

Behind Greg, Carissa rushed down the stairs. “Blitz!” When he turned, she hurled a blanket into his face.

With a grunt, he pulled it off his head.

Carissa ran down the rest of the stairs. Today, she wore an octopus-themed sweatshirt and rainbow jeans.“Oh, hi, Eva. Blitz, you lost and now you need to wear that.”

6. Use Nicknames and Titles With Care

When naming characters, consistency is almost always best. Nicknames and titles (e.g., “the lawyer” or “the girl”) should be used with consciousness and care. Especially within the narrative itself, it’s best to stick to one naming convention for each character.

When you do use a nickname in dialogue make sure readers know who is being referenced. This is especially important in introductory scenes when readers are just learning the characters’ proper names—and often learning them via dialogue as well. Introducing multiple characters at once is tricky enough; it gets confusing fast when readers must learn not just the characters’ actual names but also their nicknames.

Most of the characters in Kelly’s excerpt (which I didn’t include in its entirety due to space) have nicknames, which I’m guessing are “alter-ego” names referencing some special skill or superpower. My recommendation would be to introduce these nicknames more gradually. Especially in these opening paragraphs, the identities of “Rogue” and “Blitz” aren’t immediately clear (I initially thought Blitz was some kind of tag game, having to do with the thrown blanket).

***

Introducing characters is one of the joys of writing—since it means bringing characters on stage and letting them do their thing. It is also one of the most meticulous procedures in all fiction. If you can master it, you will give readers the great pleasure of an immediate immersion into the exciting world of your characters.

My thanks to Kelly for sharing her excerpt, and my best wishes for her story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your biggest challenge right now in figuring out how to write a better first chapter? Tell me in the comments!

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