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ServiceScape Incorporated

How To Introduce Your Characters


One of the best way to get readers invested in your story is to create well-rounded, compelling characters and then introduce those characters in interesting ways that make readers want to keep reading.

Your characters might continue to reveal themselves to you as the story unfolds, but as the author, you should have a clear vision of your characters before you introduce them to your readers. Consider writing a backstory, or origin story, for each character so you know their history, what shaped them, and what motivates them. You might consider creating character sketches and identifying each character's goals, fears, and the character's purpose in the story. You don't have to include any part of the backstory in your final manuscript, but knowing the characters' backstories will help you write characters that feel real to your readers.

Once you've got a clear vision of your characters, use the following five tips to introduce your characters in memorable ways that resonate with readers.

Draw from reality

Many first-time authors introduce characters by describing every detail of the character's physical appearance, but most readers grow bored when reading too many physical descriptions. More importantly, physical attributes are not typically what people focus when meeting someone in the real world.

Think about the last time you met a new person. How did you perceive the person in that moment? If you had to summarize that person and describe them to someone else after your first meeting, what would you say? After I meet someone new, I probably won't remember much about the person's physical appearance, but I will remember their essence and how they made me feel. If the person made me laugh or smile, that is what I would focus on when describing them to others. I will probably also notice how the person affected the atmosphere of a room or the people around me. Did this person's presence change the dynamic and make everyone a little more reserved, or did this person's arrival amplify everyone's mood and mark the moment the party really got started?

Use your personal experiences of meeting people to add depth and reality to the narrative as you introduce new characters.

Use perspective

Everyone notices different things when meeting new people. By telling you what I tend to focus on when I meet new people, I just gave you quite a bit of information about myself. Keep this in mind if you are writing from close third-person or first-person perspective, because showing the reader how your protagonist observes, notices, and responds to other characters is a great way to convey information about your protagonist without blatantly stating it.

How you choose to introduce characters will depend on your writing style, the story's genre, and what point of view (POV) you use to tell the story. If you are telling your story through close third-person POV, the reader sees and experiences everything through your protagonist's eyes. This means that your protagonist's personality and worldview will influence how they describe other characters. If your protagonist is an optimistic extrovert, he or she might be delighted to meet a bubbly, energetic person, while a more pessimistic misanthrope might think, "Oh great, this person sure is putting in a lot of effort trying to hide something … There's no way this person is like this all the time."

If you are writing from first-person point of view, readers will learn about the protagonist based on what the protagonist chooses to share directly with the reader, and they will round out their knowledge of the protagonist based on how the protagonist reacts and responds to situations and other characters.

Reveal characters through dialogue

The Harry Potter series provides some fantastic examples of how to introduce characters with maximum impact. Consider how readers first meet the Weasley twins, Fred and George, in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone.

The only physical description readers get upon meeting the four younger Weasley boys is that Harry notices a plump woman surrounded by four boys, all with flaming red hair. Yet the dialogue that follows helps the reader distinguish between those four boys:

"Fred, you next," the plump woman said.
"I'm not Fred, I'm George," said the boy. "Honestly woman, you call yourself our mother? Can't you tell I'm George?"
"Sorry, George, dear."
"Only joking, I am Fred," said the boy, and off he went. His twin called after him to hurry up…

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Although the reader doesn't know anything physically about the twins other than that they have red hair, this brief dialogue exchange shows the reader that these twins are mischievous pranksters who feel completely comfortable pranking their own mother. Introducing the Weasley twins in this way is more memorable than describing their identical features and what they're wearing. Readers don't need to be explicitly told that Fred and George are identical—the dialogue revealed that since they can confuse their own mother. Since readers met the characters through this amusing dialogue exchange, readers know to expect mischief and fun the next time we see these characters.

Reveal characters through action

The above scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone actually reveals the characters of Fred and George Weasley through a combination of dialogue and action. The author combined a fast-paced dialogue exchange with active dialogue tags to evoke a dynamic image of a chaotic and frazzled family with two relentlessly mischievous identical twins.

Whether you decide to use dialogue or narrative description to introduce your characters, you can convey essential information about your characters if you introduce them when they're in the middle of a scene, or in the middle of some kind of action. The word "action" does not mean that you have to introduce characters in the middle of a fight or driving a car that's about to explode. Action can be as simple a pushing a luggage cart through a brick wall while pretending to be your twin brother.

Let the character's reputation precede them

One effective way to create curiosity and intrigue before you officially introduce a character is to let readers hear about a character from other characters. This method creates expectations about a character, and as the author, you get to decide if the character will meet or thwart readers' preconceived expectations.

You can also reveal aspects of established characters based on how they react to a character's reputation or how they portray another character. Consider how the following scene that I have written conveys information about Mr. Dupree and Ms. Smith while also providing insight into the other characters:

"You better hurry up and finish that assignment before Mr. Dupree sees you," Sam whispered.

"I'm trying," Tracy hissed as she flipped through her Algebra 2 book. "I was up all night working on Ms. Smith's geography assignment, and I just ran out of time."

"I'd much rather disappoint Ms. Smith than Mr. Dupree," Sam added as he pulled his homework from his backpack. "Ms. Smith will forgive you by the time you finish detention, but Mr. Dupree will still be punishing you for that missed assignment in four years when you graduate."

This exchange between Tracy and Sam introduces both Mr. Dupree and Ms. Smith through their reputations. The exchange tells readers that Mr. Dupree is strict and tends to hold grudges, and readers can infer that he probably intimidates many students. If this exchange continued and other students agreed with Sam that one should never skip a Mr. Dupree assignment, readers would grow more apprehensive about Mr. Dupree and expect him to be a difficult and strict teacher. If you introduce a character in this way, you can increase the tension in your story and surprise readers by subverting expectations.

You've worked hard to create relatable characters that resonate with readers, and these five tips will help you decide how to introduce those characters to your readers. Remember, don't over-describe the characters when first introducing them: Readers don't need to know the color of their shoelaces, and we probably don't need to know the color of their eyes unless they are so unique that it's impossible to notice anything else but the ice-blue intensity of their gaze. Instead of focusing on physical appearance when introducing new characters, focus on other features that set each character apart, such as their distinctive walk or their unique way of speaking. If you feel stuck at any point, review these five tips and then take a field trip to the nearest coffee shop and take note of what stands out to you about the people you see there.

Header image by Studio Romantic.

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