Writing Tips: Introducing Your Characters

20 Jun

Special thanks to The Leisure Zone for reviewing Minutes Before Sunset: “A great read. I absolutely enjoyed reading it and it does take your imagination for a ride…This is a great leading book. I cannot wait to read the following books.” Click here to read the full review or click here to check out Minutes Before Sunset on Amazon, only $3.89.

Also, you might have noticed that my progress bar is updated on the right side of my website! I try to update it every two weeks, but I am really looking forward to the release of Take Me Tomorrow and Death Before Daylight.

People are obsessed with firsts: a baby’s first smile, winning first place in a race, your first love, getting arrested for the first time. (Okay. So maybe not that last one.) But we do like firsts, and I think it brings up a topic writers don’t normally talk about or even consider.

What are your characters’ firsts?

No. I’m not talking about their first steps when they were a baby. I’m talking about the first time they appear in the story, the first time they talked, the first time they laughed, the first time they really opened up and showed some depth to their created soul.

So I’m going to share some of my characters’ firsts as examples while I explain how important their first line can be. This might seem like a stretch for many but consider the popular phrase, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” But I really like the quote below, because I believe it applies to how your readers can perceive your characters’ first impressions as well:

quote-a-stunning-first-impression-was-not-the-same-thing-as-love-at-first-sight-but-surely-it-was-an-lois-mcmaster-bujold-214751

Characters are just like people except that we can decide exactly what that first impression will be. Maybe their first impression will be great and readers will consider loving them. Maybe everyone will hate them. You can do both, and that’s the beauty of it. You can even get really complicated and strive to have the reader love them while the characters hate them. But enough of my rambling. Below I’ll explain some first impression parts to consider with examples from Minutes Before Sunset.

First appearance:

This is important for the obvious, main reason: a first impression is largely based on how someone appears, how they act, how they think or talk. This “first appearance” can be an appearance a reader sees first or an appearance the other characters see first. Consider both of those moments carefully because you can set up how a reader might judge a character for a long time. For me – as a reader – I have become very confused when a character is introduced in a very violent or angry way when they suddenly become very nice seconds later. It’s like whiplash. Scenes like that make more sense to me when I already know the character. (I’m not saying it cannot be done. What I am saying is to approach first appearances with care.) Below are examples of characters appearing to the reader first.

In Minutes Before Sunset, Camille appears in the very first chapter. Although Eric is six, she is already his guard (and she is only nine!) We see her as soon as Eric’s father leaves him alone – and, unlike Eric’s father – Camille asks Eric is if he alright. This sets up their relationship as a caring one, but it also shows the responsibility Camille has to take care of the male protagonist. Fun fact: we don’t see Camille’s human appearance until page 21. I could go on and on about how their different identities appear at separated times, but she appeared as a guard first because that part of her life is more important to the story, to Eric, and to her.

First spoken line:

What a character says can define them just as much as what a character does. I find first lines to be good indicators on what we can expect from a character: are they funny? Angry? Bitter? Responsible? Yes, of course their personalities develop far beyond their first lines, but first lines normally happen at the same time as first appearances, which are usually important scenes, so first lines – by default – reveal extra insight, like if a character speaks with an accent or not. Moments like these then become defining factors. But I would say that you don’t have to take this literally. The first line doesn’t necessarily mean the exact first line. It can mean the first conversation they have.

For this example, I wanted to share a few first spoken lines:

Since I explained the first scene in Minutes Before Sunset, let’s look at Camille’s first line: “Eric.” Yep. That’s her first word. In contrast, Eric – as Shoman – first appears in chapter two, and his first line as a shade is “Camille.” One another’s names are the first things they say because it focuses on the depth of their relationship while insinuating how close they are on a regular basis. But if we wanted to look at Eric’s VERY first line – again, this line is spoken when he is six years old in chapter one – he simply says, “I’m fine.” It’s important to note that Eric is lying here, and lying later becomes a defining factor of Eric’s personality. On a lighter note, when we see Crystal – a side character – for the first time, she says, “Don’t answer that.” to Jessica after Robb begins flirting with her. Crystal’s first line not only shows how she can take the initiative, but it also shows her comfort with interrupting Robb, insinuating that their friends (or at least that they know one another.)

First time they interact with another character:

This can get tricky, because stories have dozens of characters and each one of them is going to interact for the first time eventually and – most of the time – it’s only the “first time” for the reader. Most of the time, characters have a past, so they aren’t speaking for the first time, but that’s also the point - the “first” conversation can show whether or not characters have a past as well as other things, such as a social ranking difference (sir, ma’am, etc.) and/or if their past is a good one. Are they friends? Are they enemies? Are they competitors? Do they talk or is this a rare instance? Considering these questions can help shape how one character approaches another one while also hinting to the reader about how they always interact – before and during the story.

In Minutes Before Sunset, we get to see two, very different types of first interactions. Since Jessica is new to Hayworth, the reader gets to be introduced to everyone just like Jessica does, but Eric isn’t new. Through his eyes, we see interactions that have history – a very dark history – and we see repercussions of that in his various interactions. For instance, let’s focus on the human identities in Minutes Before Sunset. Jessica first talks to Eric on page 36. They’ve been assigned as homeroom partners, and Jessica is trying to be amicable but Eric – obviously – does not have the same intentions. (Scene told from Eric’s perspective.)

“Hi,” she said, turning briefly toward me to smile. “I’m Jess.”

She laid out her hand for a handshake, and I pushed my chair against the wall. “I heard your name when Ms. Hinkel assigned you,” I said, opening the chemistry book left on my desk from the previous period. I was not interested in small talk.

Now – moving onto another scene to use as a comparison. Crystal – a girl who has gone to school with Eric since childhood – doesn’t speak to Eric until page 127, and the only reason they do speak is because Crystal is sitting in his seat. (If you haven’t read the books, spoiler alert: Crystal and Eric used to be friends until freshman year in high school until Abby – Eric’s previous girlfriend – died. Eric stopped speaking to everyone. Crystal and Robb take this very personally.) But here is the scene so you can see: (scene told from Jessica’s perspective)

“Hey.”

We both jumped, and our conversation halted as we turned around. In front of us, Eric stood inches away, and the teacher hovered behind him, crossing her arms.

“Er—Eric,” I managed, and Crystal stared.

“Hey, Jessica,” he said, turning his gaze to my friend. “Crystal.”

“Welborn.” She returned the acknowledgement with a cold tone. “Hey.”

His smirk faltered, and his lips thinned. “I hate to interrupt,” he said, swinging his hand over his shoulder to point at our teacher. “but I probably need my seat.”

Both of these “firsts” show Eric’s history as well as his emotional state, but the moments also reveal character traits of Jessica and Crystal. While Jessica wants to be nice at first, Eric isn’t interested, and the tension between Crystal and Eric is still present, despite the two years that have passed since Abby’s sudden death. However, this would be a good time to say that “first” interactions are just as important as how the characters continue to act and grow. Later in the story, all of these characters’ relationships shift dramatically.

So I hope you have a few places to start in regards to your characters’ firsts. You might even crack open a favorite book you’ve read just to see what those characters’ firsts were. They might surprise you. I know I had a few that shocked me.

Happy writing and reading!

~SAT

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9 Responses to “Writing Tips: Introducing Your Characters”

  1. Waqar Ahmed June 20, 2014 at 4:14 am #

    Thanks for writing such a helpful guide.. :)

  2. debyfredericks June 20, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

    I have almost a reverse comment. How many times have you seen a character introduced as very forceful and combat-ready, but by a few chapters later when (usually) she is the love interest, she suddenly loses all that, becomes passive and has to be rescued by (usually) the man? I hate that so much!!

    At least in the ’50s monster movies, you knew ahead of time that the girl would fall down right in front of the monster and need to be rescued.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 20, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

      That’s the same kind of whiplash I was talking about. :]
      ~SAT

    • christineplouvier June 25, 2014 at 9:53 am #

      I’m going to be devil’s advocate here, and say that those two depictions of the same character are not mutually exclusive – IF she is forceful and combat-ready in the defense of her young. Mitchell did that sort of thing plausibly with Melanie, in Gone with the Wind: even hard-hearted, hard-nosed, hard-bitten Scarlett, who hated her, was favorably impressed when Melanie left her postpartum sickbed to come to Scarlett’s aid with a sword. Context and culture are the keys to making this combination work.

  3. joysofbookworms June 30, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

    I found this post quite fascinating. I’m not a writer myself, but I can certainly see how this makes a difference. Thank you for sharing :)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. June’s Ketchup | Shannon A Thompson - June 30, 2014

    […] Writing Tips: Introducing Your Characters: You only get a first introduction once. […]

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