One of the biggest bugaboos in manuscript submissions is when the author doesn’t properly introduce the protagonist within the first chapter. Readers want to know quickly the protagonist’s sex, age and level of sophistication in the world of the story, and they want to relate to the character on an emotional level. Readers’ interest in the protagonist has to be earned, in other words.
If we like a character, then we want to see her do well and we’re willing to follow her around and invest our time and interest in rooting her on in her struggle. But it’s important we know some essentials about the character so we can get to like her. The trick is to avoid stand-alone description or exposition and to instead show your character in action.
This guest post is by Les Edgerton, author of fifteen books, including two about writing fiction: Hooked (Writer’s Digest Books) and Finding Your Voice (Writer’s Digest Books). He also writes short stories, articles, essays, novels, and screenplays. Follow him on Twitter @HookedOnNoir.
1. Keep physical description minimal.
A character’s physical description—unless markedly different than the norm—does relatively little to draw the reader in. The character’s actions, or details such as his occupations and interests, are much more useful. The readers will furnish a perfectly good description on their own if you simply let them know that the Uncle Charley of your story is a butterfly collector, or the elderly toll-gate keeper on the Suwannee River. Doing so will accomplish more than 10 pages of describing hair and eye color, height, weight and all of that kind of mundane detail.
My own writing contains very little description of any of my characters—it’s virtually nonexistent—yet for years I’ve asked readers if they can describe a character I pick at random from my stories, and invariably they come up with a detailed description, no matter which character I choose. When I tell them I haven’t ever described the character mentioned, they’re surprised, and some swear that I did, even going so far as to drag out the story and skim for where I’ve included the description. They never find it.
The point is, physical descriptions of characters are overrated and the poorest way to give the reader a mental picture of your character. Physical description is valuable only if it actually means something in the story: For instance, a character with a pronounced limp—a limp that is crucial to his person—runs the Boston Marathon and wins.
[Did you know there are 7 reasons writing a novel makes you a badass? Read about them here.]
2. Characterize through action.
Bestselling British writer Nick Hornby starts his novel How to Be Good by taking us through his protagonist’s inciting incident, revealed in an action that is contrary to her normal behavior and personality.
I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of … slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, I really didn’t think I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn’t forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of times and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.
Wow! Don’t you wish you’d written that? I sure do!
While we are being taken through her story-problem-creating crisis, we learn a great deal about protagonist Katie Carr. First, she comes across as surprised and amazed at her own behavior, which she herself views as diametrically opposed to the kind of person she is. She’s just not the type (at least in her own mind) to blurt out her desire for a divorce to her husband over a phone. The implication behind the words is that she’s fairly dumbfounded that she’d even consider a divorce, much less announce this over the phone. The readers suspect that they’ve perhaps come across an unreliable narrator, and unreliable narrators almost always carry the promise of at least some fun (for the readers) in a story. It’s exciting to try to figure out the truth of a character from the clues the author provides.
Or, it may be that this really is her true character and that it took a cataclysmic event (her marriage breakdown) to force it to the surface. In either event, this opening promises an intriguing read and it does so by showing the character in action. She’s saying she’s a woman of no surprises—that she lives her life in a conventional and probably even boring fashion—but then she performs a totally unconventional (for her) action. Who wouldn’t want to read on to find out why she’s acted in this way? Quite a few couldn’t resist—this novel ended up a New York Times bestseller.
[Want to land an agent? Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.]
3. Instill Individuality and Depth.
A very different example of establishing the protagonist’s character from the start is found in crime novelist Michael Connelly’s Lost Light:
There is no end of things in the heart.
Someone once told me that. She said it came from a poem she believed in. She understood it to mean that if you took something to heart, really brought it inside those red velvet folds, then it would always be there for you. No matter what happened, it would be there waiting. She said this could mean a person, a place, a dream. A mission. Anything sacred. She told me that it is all connected in those secret folds. Always. It is all part of the same and will always be there, carrying the same beat as your heart.
I am fifty-two years old and I believe it. At night when I try to sleep but can’t, that is when I know it. It is when all the pathways seem to connect and I see the people I have loved and hated and helped and hurt. I see the hands that reach for me. I hear the beat and see and understand what I must do. I know my mission and I know there is no turning away or turning back. And it is in those moments that I know there is no end of things in the heart.
What makes this opening different? Well, it’s by a brand-name author with a sizable audience already in place. Michael Connelly’s books have made the bestseller lists at least 19 more times than I’ve hit a grand-slam walk-off home run at Yankee Stadium as a member of the Bronx Bombers. This means he can write just about any opening he wants and it’s going to get published. It also means that in the hands of a writer without a ready-made audience such as Connelly enjoys, opening with the protagonist’s bit of philosophy might not work, if not done well. It could easily come across as sentimental or self-indulgent.
There is, however, another factor at work here. Connelly writes detective novels and his protagonist, Hieronymus Bosch, is a character he uses a lot. Nineteen times, in fact. One reason a series character becomes popular is because of some bit of individuality that endears the character to the readers and makes him interesting. One of Bosch’s quirks is that he is a deeply philosophical man. He’s not just a guy who runs around solving crimes. He chooses to investigate only crimes that he has a philosophical interest in, usually an aspect of something he perceives as a character flaw in himself. Solving the crime is a way for Bosch to work out his own psychological problems. Which is the reason that Connelly’s novels transcend genre and can be considered literary as well as popular. They are as much about the inner psychological life of a character as they are about the crime to be solved.
We can see from the beginning that Bosch is a detective with a deep soul and a thoughtful, reflective mien. What the author chooses to reveal about his character is telling. This is a character worth knowing better—a character with depth.
We can also see from the beginning that there’s trouble ahead. The narrator has already told us he’s about to be engaged in a dark struggle, a struggle as much against himself as against his onstage adversary.
And so we read on. As will your readers, should you craft such a beguiling opening.
Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.
Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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From wicked step-mothers to fairy god-mothers, from stock phrases such as “once upon a time” to “happily ever after”, fairy-tales permeate our culture. Disney blockbusters have recently added another chapter to the history of the fairy-tale, sitting alongside the 19th century, saccharine tales published by the Brothers Grimm and the 17th century stories written by Charles Perrault. Inspired by Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time, we asked OUP staff members to channel their inner witches, trolls, and princesses, and reveal who their favourite fairy-tale character is and why. Do you agree with the choices below? Who would you choose?
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“The outlook is not promising for my favourite fairy-tale character, Kai, towards the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. With splinters from the troll’s mirror in his eye and his heart (that have turned him evil), Kai is a prisoner of the Snow Queen being forced to spell out the word ‘eternity’ using pieces of ice, in the manner of a Chinese puzzle. And he does it all for the childish promise of a pair of skates. Knowing the author’s penchant for unhappy, complicated endings, I was greatly relieved when the story ends with Kai’s childhood love Gerda coming to the rescue!”
— Taylor Coe, Marketing Coordinator
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“Though I have many favorite characters, the one that has been consistent throughout my life is Ariel/The Little Mermaid. I have always been fascinated by the ocean so her story stood out amongst the other fairy-tales when I was growing up. I admire her ability to recognize what she wants, and her courage to change her circumstances, no matter the consequences. She is curious and always seeks out new experiences, which I relate to. Ariel’s story reminds us to question our surroundings and create adventurous lives.”
— Molly Hansen, Marketing Associate
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“Baba Yaga. She has long been my favorite mainly because of the sound, rhythm, and cadence with which my mother (who first told me the story from a children’s book of fairy-tales) said ‘Baba Yaga, the boney-legged’. All sorts of possibilities lay within those five words. (I later learned my mother was mispronouncing ‘Baba Yaga’.) I think what her story distinct is that Baga Yaga was an individual. Normally fairy-tale characters, especially villains, are nameless : a witch, a wicked stepmother, etc. (this was before I learned it simply means ‘old woman’). Baba Yaga had a home (with chicken legs!); she didn’t live in some random cottage that inept children could find. Baga Yaga belonged in the (fairy tale) universe just as much as the heroes. (I have no idea what the hero’s name was supposed to be.)”
— Alice Northover, Social Media Marketing Manager
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“Mine is La belle au bois dormant – or Sleeping Beauty. Just the thought of sleeping in peace for 100 years sounds like heaven to me. I’m not so fussed about being awoken by a kiss from a prince – I’d rather he came with a large cup of tea!”
— Andrea Keegan, Senior Commissioning Editor
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“My favourite fairy-tale character is one I can’t actually pronounce: Snegurochka. For those who don’t speak Russian – and I modestly include myself among that number – Snegurochka (or Snegurka) is known in English as The Snow Maiden. It’s about a girl made of snow, by a poor, childless couple, who unexpectedly comes to life. Most versions of the story end relatively tragically, but I love the mixture of fantasy and real life. It’s very poignant, and lends itself to many different retellings.”
— Simon Thomas, Marketing Executive
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“I have always been a fan of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale Snow White and Rose Red. Since one sister shares a name with the other fairy tale princess, I think these young ladies often are overlooked. I love that they are brave enough to be generous and kind even to those who are different or intimidating. And someone who is ungrateful for their help gets eaten by a bear—a good lesson for us all.”
— Patricia Hudson, Associate Director of Institutional Marketing
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“My favourite fairy-tale character is Puss in Boots because he is such a cunning feline. Ever the loyal cat, he uses his tricks and deceptions to aid his master in pursuit of love and fortune. He is part of a long tradition of the ingenious sidekick, whose skills far outweigh those of their counterpart – in this case his master – who inevitably reap the benefits of the sidekick’s wily ways. It’s got everything really: brains, adventure, romance… and rather adorably, a cat who thinks he’s people.”
— Jennifer Rogers, Team Leader (GAB Operations)
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“Peter Pan because he is selfish and charming, earthly and ethereal, vulnerable and bold; he boasts “Oh, the cleverness of me!” and also fearlessly announces “To die would be an awfully big adventure”. He inhabits a dream-world and delights in enticing us to join him; to leave off adulthood and rekindle our childhood spirit & imagination.”
— Suzie Eves, Marketing Assistant
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“I’ve always loved the tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Irish warrior. He’s a shape-shifter in mythology; sometimes a man, sometimes a descendant of magic people, sometimes a giant. As a giant, he built the Giant’s Causeway to give him a stepping stone to Scotland. During a feud with a Scottish giant he dug out a clump of earth to throw at his rival; the hole where the earth had been became Lough Neagh, the earth (which fell short of Scotland) became the Isle of Man. It is said that he never died, but lies asleep underground, and will wake to protect Ireland and the Irish people when they need him most. I love these tales, as they speak to me of the places of my childhood, and when I visit the Giant’s Causeway, I almost feel like I could round a corner to find Fionn stepping in his giant boots across the Irish Sea.”
— Cathryn Steele, Assistant Commissioning Editor
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“My favourite fairy-tale character is the old shoemaker, who worked very hard and was very honest, but who couldn’t earn enough to feed his family. He unknowingly receives the help of the nocturnal elves, who themselves have nothing, not even clothes on their backs, but who work all night to turn leather into beautifully crafted shoes. The eventually success of the old shoemaker did not change him and he repaid the elves kindness with Christmas presents of fancy shirts, bright pantaloons, and teeny tiny clogs, and the elves went away happy and dancing. A lovely lesson not to forget those who helped us get where we are. It also reminds me of what parents say when they’ve performed a thankless task, “the elves must have done it!”. Perhaps it’s really a hint that they deserve a nice present at Christmas!”
— Alison Jones, Managing Editor (Open Access)
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“My favourite fairy-tale character is the horse Dapplegrim. I always loved how he was the brains and also the brawn in his fairy tale, and how the story was really about him, instead of about the prince and the princess who usually feature so centrally in fairy-tales. With his help his master was able to complete the tasks he was set and marry the princess, but Dapplegrim never asked for his own reward. His story had everything – magic, shape-shifting, seemingly-impossible tasks, a beautiful princess/sorceress to win, and a battle. Dapplegrim always came out on top.”
— Jenny Nugee, Administative Assistant
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“As a child I remember being horrified and fascinated by the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The more horrible the story, the more I loved it. Yet, it was not until I was a full-grown adult that I discovered my favorite book of fairy-tales. It was in the mid-90s when I was in my late 20s, living in Hoboken, NJ. My bedroom window looked out the back onto the backroom of a local pub, The Shannon Lounge. It was in the backroom of the Shannon Lounge that I witnessed a strange puppet show inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter. Here are wondrous tales of kids catching fire for playing with matches, and tall lanky men snipping off the thumbs of thumb sucking minors, or what would happen if you tipped in your chair at the dinner table, and many other cautionary tales for obstreperous brats that paid little heed to the wisdom of their parents and elders.”
— Christian Purdy, Publicity Director, GAB Marketing
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“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the lesser-known but very sweet Brave Little Tailor. He becomes king because of a series of calculated heroic actions, including clever wordplay (he kills “seven at one stroke,” he claims, referring not to men but to the seven flies he killed at breakfast) and defeating giants without even touching them (he turns them on each other, instead). He moves up the social ladder and marries the princess all due to his wit and cleverness—and maybe some white lies here and there…”
— Georgia Brodsky, Marketing Coordinator
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“The best characters are almost always the evil ones! I love the Queen in Snow White, particularly in the Brothers Grimm telling of the story. Her impressively creative attempts to kill Snow White are fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that I can relate to her demise: dancing in red-hot shoes until she drops dead.”
— Caroline James, Editor
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“I’ve always had a soft spot for the Ugly Duckling. As a very sensitive kid, I agonized with the baby bird at every step of his journey and was elated when he found his true family. Then, as a typically insecure teenager, I dreamed of having a transfiguration of my own. Now, as I tell the story to my daughter, it reminds me how important it is to treat even the scruffiest of ducklings more like potential swans.”
— Beth Craggs, Communications Executive
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“One of my favourite fairy-tale characters is the dog with the eyes as big as saucers in The Tinderbox. I like him because even though the treasure he guarded was the least valuable, he is no less intimidating as a character. As a child I wished I had a dog, so the idea of having three big dogs you could summon at any time also had great appeal!”
— Iona Argyle, Programme Administrator
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“My favourite fairy-tale character has to be Roald Dahl’s feisty Little Red Riding Hood. Dahl’s ability to challenge traditional roles and inject any story with a wicked spark of fun made his books a mainstay of my childhood. As a feminist, and someone who has watched the obsession with ‘perfect princesses’ with increasing dismay, the killer lines in this poem feel like a perfect antidote:”
‘The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead’
— Emma Duke, Group Communications Manager
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