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Anne R. Allen's Blog

...WITH RUTH HARRIS

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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."


Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, January 31, 2010

12 Dos and Don'ts for Introducing your Protagonist

Welcome all my new followers. And thanks for all the comments!

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.

Labels:

11 Comments:

Anonymous Susan Tuttle, author Tangled Webs said...

Great advice, Anne. Of course I break most of this in "Piece By Piece," but I do have valid reasons to do so, which makes all the difference. I don't usually let the trivial spill out into my first chapters - I get it out of the way by writing bios of my main characters. I know when and where they were born, their likes & dislikes, etc, well before I start writing. They're already my best friends - which is a little hinky feeling when it comes to my oh-so-nasty villains! What a rich fantasy life I lead... Hmm, time to go look for brains to eat... ketchup, anyone?

January 31, 2010 at 5:37 PM  
Blogger Catherine Ryan Hyde said...

You are so damned funny!

January 31, 2010 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger Emily Cross said...

Excellent post again :)

February 1, 2010 at 2:04 AM  
Blogger Piedmont Writer said...

Thanks Anne for posting this list. I was on the fence about where to start my new WIP and you clearly state he is not to be alone, on the deck of a ship, musing. So, chop chop. You're the best!

February 1, 2010 at 4:29 AM  
Blogger Piedmont Writer said...

P.S. I noticed you just hit 100 followers. Congratulations.

February 1, 2010 at 4:30 AM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

I was trained as a painter and the rules about learning the rules before breaking them apply as well. Also, I would add for painters and writers, a similar process is found in the old joke about the guy on the street in NY who asks, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall," and passerby says, "Practice, Son, Practice." Like painters, I presume writers have to write, write, write, not only to get the techinque down pat so the eye hand coordination becomes automatic, but it takes a lot of time (and paint, and paper) to develop the vision inside. Other old joke about actors applies to artists and writers, "Yeah, I became an "overnight" success . . . after 25 years working hard every day at my craft." Like fine wine, good artists take time and hard work to "mature."

February 1, 2010 at 7:19 AM  
Blogger Sierra Godfrey said...

Great reading, thanks Anne!

February 1, 2010 at 10:12 AM  
Anonymous T.R. Patterson said...

Great post...I am gearing up to edit my novel and this was a great reminder of how to introduce a protagonist that people will care about, and make them want to know more...

Thanks !!

:D

_TR

February 1, 2010 at 1:46 PM  
Blogger Stacy McKitrick said...

Thanks for the tips. You helped me make up my mind about keeping the second character in my opening.

The beginning is so freakin' hard.

February 1, 2010 at 8:01 PM  
Blogger christineA said...

Great advice, again! My novel actualy starts half way through the first chapter, I realized, thanks to your brilliant advice. Now, the challenge, fitting the first half back in!

February 2, 2010 at 11:34 AM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

Beginnings are not my strong suite. I never know just exactly where to start.

After this, its back to the drawing board - or rather, cutting room.

.........dhole

February 2, 2010 at 6:09 PM  

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