Friday, October 5, 2012

Hey I just met you and this is crazy...

What first impression is your character giving? 

 I wrote a book back in 2008 for Nanowrimo that was pretty awful. I loved it at the time, of course, but it didn't flow. It meeeaaaaaanderrrred like a snake through a really, really big garden. The beginning didn't match the ending (a common problem for pantsers, I hear). But worst of all, the first impression I'd created for my main character fell completely flat.

 If you write romance, or anything with a romantic element, you know how important that first meet cute is. You plan it out: wouldn't it be fun if they met at a doughnut shop or a dog park or a moon colony grand opening?

 Yet many of us make the mistake of introducing our main character to potential readers in a dull way.

 Back to my Nanowrimo 2008 novel: 

 It started with a man-child science fiction writer waking up and going through his day. He got irritated by things a lot, and the reader got the full dose because I did this all in first person POV. Eventually his book publicist/mother figure walked in and started giving him orders. He reacted. She left. He went on to the next boring thing he had to do.

 I don't know why I thought it was so important to show this boring part of his life, but I did. I was convinced it was the best way to characterize him for the reader. That way they could be super excited when something different happened.

 Um, setting up low expectations for a big surprise later is a bad idea in a novel. Apparently, readers with low expectations just. stop. reading. This isn't rocket science, I know. My MC was bored with his life, so why wouldn't readers be bored by his life, too?

 I soon found out this is a common problem for newbie writers. A friend of mine showed me the beginning of his on-a-whim attempt at a novel start. He, too, had come up with a plot involving a troubled dude. He, too, had begun by describing just how troubled the dude was. It, too, bored my socks off. Eventually, it was going to get into corporate theft, blackmail, and scapegoating -- but the first chapter felt like standing in line at the DMV.

Nowadays I understand the importance of tension and EVENT in the beginning of a novel, but I still struggle with creating the perfect first impression of my main character.

In life, people like to think they have you pegged from "Hello." The statement, "Oh, you're one of those people," may be said rarely, but it's secretly thought about a gazillion times per second. This isn't a terribly bad inclination of humankind. It has its roots in our survival instincts, which are pretty important. Babies study their parents' faces. When we meet someone new, we do the same thing but in a (we think) more sophisticated way.

We listen for

  • jargon or slang
  • pop culture references
  • vocabulary level
  • accent
If a person uses a $10 word like 'ephemeral,' we either think he's stuck up or nerdy or just plain impressive. It all depends on the sum of the pieces.

If he uses it in a stuck elevator after you've been sitting on the floor talking about the difference between happiness and joy, it will strike you differently than if he says it while staring wistfully at his spilled vanilla latte.

We aren't just listening, either. We're breathing, which means we can smell the way-too-minty toothpaste she's using or the cologne that takes us back to a golden summer of a first kiss, or the movie popcorn butter on his still-greasy fingers.

Beyond the obvious visuals we all remember to include like hair style, dress, and weight, there's an every-sense meeting going on between our reader and our main character. If you're leaving something out of that first-impression equation, make sure you're doing it on purpose.

It's okay to let your reader think the protagonist at the pharmacy is a self-righteous line-cutter with anger management problems, and then to explain a few pages later that he was actually buying an inhaler for his asthmatic five-year-old, waiting in the car with his panic-prone wife.

Meeting your protagonist should be entertaining and make us as readers feel like we've already got him or her pegged. Oh, she's one of those people.

So, to sum up:

  • use all five senses
  • put the MC in an interesting situation right off the bat (make sure the character isn't bored)
  • make us guess wrong - never let a stereotype stand

Try writing a first scene about your main character from the perspective of a mind-reader watching from a bus stop bench. How do the MC's thoughts reinforce or belie his other identifying features? Are his clothes ratty but his thoughts highly educated? Does he smile while he's in pain? How would a non-mind-reader perceive these contradictions? What physical evidence gives it all away?

Have fun and Happy Weekend!


  1. I love this post. It gets me thinking about my MC in a different way. I love her but the supporting characters always seem easier to develop. Maybe this'll help me flesh her out some more.

  2. Funny - I had never seen that video so the ending caught me by surprise! :-)

  3. I needed this. I just reread my first chapter and found out that my MS actually starts at chapter 2! That is when the event happens, when the reader will care. I think writing chaoter one was good for me in developing the main character, but it is definitely not backstory that the reader needs. So thank you for a great post!


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