First impressions count, in fiction as in life. You have one chance to introduce your protagonist in a way that endears readers—and you should make the most of it. Your hero needs to make a grand entrance. Anything less is a missed opportunity—one that you may never get back.
If you’re thinking, “That’s not true, readers will warm up to my heroine as the story unfolds,” think again. One of the most common complaints I hear from editors rejecting stories is that “I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.” Readers want to fall in love with the character they’re going to follow and root for through the course of the story. And they want to do it right away. They won’t waste their time reading about someone who fails to engage them.
Here are a few tips and tricks to putting your protagonist’s best foot forward, from page one:
SET UP A MEET CUTE FOR READERS AND YOUR MAIN CHARACTER
Borrow a trick from rom coms, which typically begin with a meet-cute, an early scene in which two people destined to fall in love first meet each other. Just like in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, when Gary Cooper tells the pajamas salesclerk that he only wants the top and Claudette Colbert steps up to say, “I’ll take the bottom”—which is where the term “meet cute” supposedly originated. We fall in love with Cooper, Colbert, and the thought of Cooper and Colbert together.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST: LIKABLE VS UNLIKABLE
I know, I know, you hear all this talk about anti-heroes and unreliable narrators and unlikable protagonists, but the truth is that there has to be something about your main character that readers love, like, or at least admire if they’re going to keep on reading. If your heroine is courageous, like Katniss Everdeen hunting food for her extended family (not to mention volunteering to take her little sister’s place in The Hunger Games) or hilarious, like Bridget Jones tracking her consumption of calories and cocktails and people asking her if she’s married yet in Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’re off to a good start.
IMPRESS READERS WITH YOUR PROTAGONIST’S [FILL IN THE BLANK HERE]
If your hero is less than congenial, at least give us something to approve of. We see that Sherlock Holmes is kind of an arrogant jerk, but he is the smartest person in the room. In Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dexter reveals himself as a killer right away, as he corners Father Donovan, whose own victims are children—and we are impressed by Dexter’s mission to rid the world of serial killers even more ruthless than he.
GIVE YOUR HEROINE MORE TO DO
Too many stories open with the main character sitting alone, thinking about life—past, present, future. Or worse, in bed, dreaming. This is no way to introduce your protagonist; it’s passive, nondramatic, and boring. You need to introduce your main character in action, preferably in conflict with other characters. (Ask any actor if it’s easier to hold an audience’s attention when he’s interacting with other actors or just monologuing.) But if your heroine is alone, she’d better be doing something very compelling, like climbing Mount Everest or charming a King cobra or stealing the Mona Lisa.
HEROES SHOULD BE, UH, HEROIC
The best protagonists are just like us, only better. Like us on a very good day. We want to read about characters who overcome. Someone once said that if you want to write a good story, put your heroine up a tree and throw rocks at her. The more stones, the better; the bigger the boulders, the better. So toss that first stone at her straightaway—and show her rise to the occasion.
That’s why James Bond always does something spectacular as the story opens, reminding us that this guy is a hero, and that these opening heroics are just the beginning of another exciting journey with 007.
But your character doesn’t have to ski jump into a parachute drop or bungee-dive down a dam or drive a motorcycle off a cliff. There are all kinds of bravery. The best grand entrances give us a glimpse of the protagonist’s grit—with the promise of more to come.
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