Introducing a Character

When introducing a character it isn’t necessary to tell the reader everything about them in one go. Readers like to work things out for themselves, to pick out the clues and gather information as they go, which is one of the reasons crime fiction is so popular. If you’re writing a first-person story you don’t even have to use the protagonist’s name, this is harder in a third-person story because it came come to seem like deliberate avoidance, plus knowing the characters’ names, even if it’s not their real name, makes it easier to keep them distinguished from the other characters in the narrative.

A common mistake people make when they first begin writing is that when they introduce a new character they have a lengthy description of them and what they’re like. Such large chunks of description that down move the story along can slow it down and make it dull and it can take away the joy of discovery. Such chunks of description are fine in a first draft when you’re working out who everyone is and how the story fits together but when you’re editing you’d once again have to ask yourself the question, ‘Does this need to be here?’

Another problem with these chunks of description are that the characters, in the reader’s estimation, might not match their descriptions. It’s important to remember that people interpret things differently; one person’s idea of a reasonable act might not be the same as another’s. As the saying goes, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. People don’t like being told what to think so if you keep telling them how good your character is and they disagree they might never read another of your stories again. If another character says it, however, the rules are slightly different because that is the character’s interpretation of another character. Readers are more forgiving of characters expressing opinions of each other because that’s what real people do. As I discussed in a previous article one of the reasons I didn’t write the weekly serial from Bran’s perspective is that Charlotte would be painted as far nicer than she is because he’s in love with her. If I was to write the serial from Josef’s perspective then the view of Charlotte would change again. Father Brennan would have yet another perspective, and Mrs Stapleton another and so on and so on.

These varying perspectives are why showing has come into favour over telling because it leaves a gap for the reader to make their own mind up. Spreading information through the novel using the character’s behaviour generally proves more effective than simply telling people at the beginning who the character is. So if you find that your beginning is heavy with telling the reader who the character is then try spreading the information out to see if it not only makes the character depiction more effective but also lightens the load that your opening scenes carry and get the story started quicker.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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