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This weekend I spoke at a local workshop for the mystery writers group, Sisters in Crime. My topic was “Introducing the Protagonist.” I thought I’d post some of my nuggets of wisdom here.
But remember: these are rules for the final draft. When you’re first diving into a novel, you’re not introducing your characters to a reader; you’re introducing them to yourself. All kinds of information about your MC will come up, like she eats cold pizza for breakfast, grew up next to an adult book store, and feels a deep hatred for Smurfs. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part. But be aware you’ll want to cut most of the information or move it to another part of the book when you edit.
When you’re doing that editing, here are some dos and don’ts:
DON’T start with a Robinson Crusoe opening. That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character driving alone in the car, sitting on an airplane, waking up and going to work, or looking in the mirror.
DO open with the protagonist in a scene with other characters—showing how he interacts with the world. Two or three is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.
DON’T give a lot of physical description, especially of the "police report" variety. All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t have to be told the color of Sam Spade’s hair, or Inspector Morse’s weight. The reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.
DO give us some physical markers that indicate personality. Unusual characteristics like Nero Wolfe’s size, Hercule Poirot’s mustache, and Miss Marple’s age show who these characters are and make them memorable.
DON’T plunge into action before introducing the characters. The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care. Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear your next door neighbor’s mom got hit by a car, you want to know when, where, how badly she’s injured, etc.
DO give your MC strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene. We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: the fury he feels because his roommate keeps watching that DVD of the Smurfs, the desperate hunger from not eating anybody’s brains for weeks, or mortification because he has a run in his panty hose.
DON’T start with a POV character about to be killed or otherwise eliminated from the storyline. The reader will feel his time and sympathy have been wasted getting to know somebody irrelevant.
DO introduce the MC as close to page one as possible.
DON’T start with dialogue. Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say. It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and the hooker from 12B—you’re all ears.
DO let us know where we are and who’s speaking in couple of sentences before you let them start blabbering.
DON’T start with a prologue (see last week’s post below.) They annoy readers and infuriate agents.
DO dribble in your MC’s backstory in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks--AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.
Yes, I know: lots of superb books break all these rules. But established writers can do an awful lot of fun stuff the rest of us can’t get away with. And it helps to know what the rules are before we go whacking at them with blunt instruments.