First impressions count, particularly in a novel. To draw readers into your novel as soon as possible, you must provide a kick-ass introduction to your protagonist. Make it provocative, unique, memorable. Key aspects of your central character should stick in readers’ minds as they continue through the rest of your story.
Here are a few different ways to do this, illustrated by masters of the craft.
Introduce a character through action
“Still, even with all these thoughts swirling in her head, Nella didn’t know how exactly to express any of them to the white woman sitting in front of her, asking what she thought. The white woman who just happened to be her boss…”
In the first chapter of Zakiya Dalila Harris’s genre-bending The Other Black Girl, the narrator’s POV is soon established as she, a book editor, struggles to assess a white person’s portrayal of a black character. What do we learn?
- She’s a black woman in the professional world, struggling to express herself to folks who don’t quite get it.
This is only the beginning for this appealing character who is manipulated, threatened, and overlooked in the workplace. Can you relate?
“Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.”
Tobias Wolff’s classic memoir This Boy’s Life begins with this line. Right away we know the main character is in a jam, and we also can figure out:
- It’s a kid and his mother.
- Their car often breaks down.
- They’re crossing the country.
This is a quick and efficient intro to Toby Wolff’s true story of his tumultuous childhood with his divorced mother. And surely the fact that they’ve just crossed the Continental Divide symbolically suggests to the reader that these two are on the cusp of change.
Meeting a character on the verge of a major life event is a good way for readers to speedily ascertain both character and plot.
Or… present the character in a typical action
In Paula Munier’s wonderful mystery A Borrowing of Bones, readers meet the series heroine Army vet Mercy Carr in the wilderness, hiking with her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis, where they come upon an abandoned child crying in the woods.
What do we know?
- Mercy is a military vet with issues and a companion dog.
- Her dog Elvis is an experienced crime solver.
- They enjoy walks in the woods.
The books in Munier’s series introduce their characters in action, or in nature, or in action in nature. That already tells you a lot about Mercy Carr and even where the story is headed. Crime solvers and dog lovers are ready for their treat!
Introduce a character through another POV
“His slim shadow is, in fact, still that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like one of those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully until they match the trees.”
The unnamed narrator in Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Less gets to it right away. This arch intro tells us there’s no way for our still-slim, well-preserved hero Arthur Less to evade advancing age. And, yes, mortal topics trouble our protagonist in this novel as he approaches his fiftieth birthday, but what’s already clear here on the page is that readers will get a fresh take on an ageless topic. Turns out it’s not so bad after all—actually, it’s quite wonderful.
Also, this introduction occurs right away on Page One.
Forthrightly introducing your character as soon as possible signals a swift no-nonsense plot.
Give your character a memorable character trait
“I’m your maid … I’m the one who empties your trash, tossing out receipts you don’t want anyone to discover. I’m the one who changes your sheets, who can tell if you slept in them … I am your maid. I know so much about you. But when it comes down to it: what is it you know about me?”
I love when the main character of a first-person narrative introduces themselves. If done well, there’s instant bonding with the protagonist and I’m ready and eager for the ride. In the short first chapter of Nita Prose’s The Maid, right away we learn important aspects of the protagonist’s perspective. She’s an observant character hidden from most in the shadows.
While we immediately like and identify with Molly Gray, her characterization deepens as the story progresses. Readers come to understand gradually that she’s on the autism spectrum, and possibly has OCD. With this slow reveal by the author, readers do some of the work, which makes their reading experience even more resonant.
Start with your character’s back story
“It was the day Dog died. I was sixteen, Carl fifteen. A few days earlier Dad had shown us the hunting knife I killed him with.”
Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian thriller The Kingdom tells the Cain and Abel story of brothers. In the prologue, Carl accidentally shoots Dog, and the task of putting down the beloved dog falls to the book’s narrator, Roy. The book’s noir plot takes place twenty years later when Carl returns to the family farm with his new wife and plans to get rich, but the dynamic between protagonist Roy and his brother Carl has already been laid out for readers.
The dog’s death at the beginning will make this a no-go for many readers, but if you dig dark thrillers, this amazing book’s for you.
Character introductions do not necessarily require lengthy descriptions of physical appearances.
Sometimes it’s preferable to leave out those details and let the reader’s imagination fill them in.
Whatever you do, NO MIRRORS!
Says Hank Phillippi Ryan, “I read somewhere—and somehow it stuck—that to introduce a character you need to tell the reader three things. And it’s not a formula, not three specified things like height, temperament, clothing, or age, relationship, health—but any three things. A kind of quick triangulation for the reader, and a method to weave, in whatever way the author needs, the character into the story.”
Here, in a work in progress by Hank, is the first appearance of a character who is a business associate of the main character Arden. Besides Luz’s name (and we do not instantly get her last name), we immediately understand her experience, her relationship with Arden, and her ambition. As a result, we understand Luz’s place in the story. We do not get any physical characteristics.
“Friday, right?” Luz had tapped once on her door, hadn’t waited for Arden to invite her to come in. Luz could always come in, and after two years of working together, knew when it was a time to ask permission. She’d lose her, soon, Arden knew; Luz Ocasio made no secret of her desire for more responsibility at The Vincent Group. Arden hoped she’d get it but she might not be here to see her sometime-protégé in action. If all went as planned.
Several paragraphs later, we get some physical characteristics—again, relating to the main character, Arden. And we get setting too.
“I guess I’d do the family thing,” Luz was saying. She’d settled into the chair, her black trousers and navy suede heels spotless. An Arden look, like her similar dark chignon, but Arden had endorsed the flattery.
In most stories, readers should be quickly acquainted with key aspects of the protagonist’s character. Ideally, that characterization provides readers with an emotional stake in the story that’s about to unfold.
In your WIP, how do you introduce your protagonist? Share with us on Facebook.