books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 19, 2010

12 Dos and Don'ts for Introducing your Protagonist

I've been dealing with an evil computer virus which first attacked my desktop and now seems to have killed my laptop dead. They're both old machines, so it may be better to replace them than try to fix them, but now I'm worried my back-up drives may be infected too. This is not a nice thing. But I seem to have the desktop kind of working for now.

For the last two days I've been at the Central Coast Writers conference, having a fantastic time, hanging out with my idol, MR.. NATHAN BRANSFORD (yes, he really is that smart and classy. A snappy dresser, too.) I also got to meet some of my followers in person. Hi there, 1st Daughter! I'll write more about the conference later when I have a reliable computer.

Congrats to followers Sherry Heber, Susan Tuttle, and Paul Fahey for cleaning up at the Conference awards. And I mean cleaning up: Sherry won ALL THREE of the poetry awards!. Woo-hoo you guys! Judy Salamacha and Cathe Olsen--thanks for making the event a fantastic experience. Last year, the C. C. Conference was named by Westways Magazine the friendliest writers conference in the West, and Judy is keeping up that tradition.

But what with battling viruses and having too much fun for the last two days, I don't have a new post for today. In fact, I feel amazingly lucky that I've got onto my blog at all. So I'm going to give you an oldie but goodie.

The wonderful Sierra Godfrey mentioned this post in her round up of round-ups last week as one of her favorite posts ever, so I figured it would be a good one to post again.

One note of caution: 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. They annoy readers and infuriate agents. (Yes, I know there are arguments on both sides, but they work against you most of the time.

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.


If there are any glaring typos or snafus here, do let me know. I admit to being seriously impaired today. Fighting viruses makes my eyeballs hurt. I suppose it's from the tears...alas. I loved this computer!

40 comments:

  1. I'm sorry your computers are down. That just sucks.

    But I had to laugh as I read your do's and don't's list. Right off the bat I have to change my opening. First by getting rid of the prologue, second by not having her in her car.

    Good thing it's just the first draft. Thanks again for the Sunday post. It's always an eye-opener.

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  2. I love your blog Anne Allen. And, I've never been mentioned in a blog before!!! Thank you for that and for the congrats! I like the new computer idea. Get something fabulous. You deserve it!! Fondly, Sherry Heber

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  3. I agree with everything you wrote. Though I wouldn't have been able to say why, until I read your explanations!

    I will add the only reason to describe the MC is if it is pertinent to the story. Ties in later. Otherwise, how many characters can you remember their hair color? Eyes? Or height?

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  4. Great post! Thanks for sharing! And that conference sounds great!

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  5. Aww thanks for a) reposting this, b) giving me the shout out, and c) talking about the conference! It sounds fabulous and I hope you do a full report soon.

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  6. Hi there Anne! So so nice to finally meet you in person! :o) I'll be in touch very soon!

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  7. You got to meet NATHAN BRANSFORD in person!! Lucky you!!

    And that's a great list of do's & don'ts. Must make some notes!
    Judy

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  8. Hi,

    Some great advice there - I think I've got most of those covered in my current WIP but I shall check!

    Very sorry to hear about the virus. Not good. I hope your backup is uninfected and you're back to normal soon.

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  9. Great tips, all of them! Thanks for this.

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  10. Thanks for your comments, everybody.

    I also should have given a shout out to Mrs. RRRRandy Wurst (Valerie Bentz) for her First prize win for first page of a novel at the CC Conference. One of the best first pages ever. It gave me goosebumps.

    And I think I've defeated the Trojans! Turned out to be Trojans, not viruses, I was dealing with. Something called TDSS, that MacAfee doesn't yet know how to deal with. I Googled it, found a patch and it seems to have killed them dead. One more scan to make sure. I can't tell you how empowering that is for a cybermoron.

    And maybe I don't have to replace this computer right away. Sigh of relief here.

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  11. Oh, I feel your pain. I have battled viruses as well and to have them infecting BOTH your computers! Ugh! I hope you're all feeling better soon.

    I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog when I did. I'm finishing up the first draft of my first novel and I'll take all your tips to heart as I begin my first round of revisions.

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  12. I agree with these. The only thing is my best and most finished and edited piece starts with 600 words of action yet it could be prologue. It's critical to understanding how the character becomes who she is. You see her (literally) on the edge about to jump. Then you get to find out what put her there. Is that wrong?

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  13. Good timing on this for me, Anne, as I'm just starting the next "Bella" mystery

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  14. Thanks everybody. Both of my computers seem to be running fine now. I'm feeling very empowered after getting my geek on and defeating the varmints.

    Andrea, it sounds as if you have a compelling opening--just call it chapter one instead of a prologue and you'll probably be fine.

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  15. Great advice - if my boss and the hooker from 12B were shouting I'd be all eyes AND ears! :)

    WV: manties? OMG!!! This is a design/advertising opportunity in a microcosm!

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  16. Thanks so much Anne. This is a great post. I've been struggling with some of these issues and each time I go back and edit, the work gets better.

    Ever read Donald Maass' books?

    He is a hard task master, but the best in teaching how to edit and streamline our chapters, one at a time.

    Thanks again :)

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  17. This is a great list! Thanks for all the tips!

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  18. Hey Anne! So sorry you've been having computer problems!! Great article...thanks for sharing! And you know...it's Comment Like Crazy Wednesday! :)

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  19. Yes, Florence, I've been a Maassketeer for a while now. I think we should all read Writing the Breakout Novel at some point. Some of his stuff drives me batty (my books are already too heavy on plot and subplots) and he can be infuriating to literary writers, but most of his advice is useful no matter what your genre.

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  20. No snooze fests or info dumps! Good points!

    I'm not a big fan of prologues. If it's important enough to be in the book - put it in the book! But that's just me!

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  21. Haha I've been going back and forth b/w this post and one by your idol about the Happy Writer...nice to meet you!!

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  22. Such an awesome post!! Thank you. Really great list to boil it all down.

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  23. Anne - Really good post, thank you. I also attended the CCWC and had face time with Nathan. Isn't he simply the best? Your protagonist pointers above are right-on. Thank you for your timely post. I'll be passing this blog on :) Best wishes from one SLO County resident to another!

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  24. I love the bit about the boss and the hooker in 12B and the poor fellow with the run in the hose! I like how your do's and don't's set up descriptive images in my mind! Happy writing!

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  25. I hate it when characters look in a mirror - or worse, they describe their twin - so we can find out what they look like. So much better to drop minimal description throughout!

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  26. I had to laugh about not doing a prologue. I had just finished reading an agent's blog who said prologues were fine as long as they don't go on for pages. Now what is an author to do?

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  27. These were great tips; I hope every writer heeds them. I've been guilty of a few. :)

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  28. I'm just rewriting my first chapter so this post was interesting, thanks.

    Btw, I can recommend off-site backups :-)
    I've only used Amazon's S3 service myself (only costs pennies), but there are free services too like Dropbox et al.

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  29. Thanks for the great list of to do's and not to do's!

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  30. A great concise collection of advice! Going to add this one to my list of resources!

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  31. what a great blog post! Thanks for taking the time to get this up, with all the computer hassle you're having, too. Much appreciated :)

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  32. It's too bad that I've broken most of the rules here--in my pursuits to bring out a good book.

    But I was never much a "crowd pleaser" or someone who was a 'team player' for the mainstream.

    I create my own guidelines and my own rules.

    Schuyler Thorpe

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  33. This is a really helpful post. I found you via the link on Amie Kaufman's blog, and I'll be reading more. Thanks!

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  34. I know this is an older post, but my good friend Susan Kay Quinn just guided me to it. It' perfect for me, right now. I've had some really encouraging movement with my YA novel, yet something is holding the agents back. I think it's my opener. I think I need to have her interact with her surroundings a bit more. I love this post. Thank you.

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  35. New to your blog. Reading all with interest and you have some great advice about blogging. I am still trying to decide if I want to continue to have a blog.

    I just must disagree with you about Don't start with dialoque. I love action and the quicker a writer can get me into it is great and I feel dialoque is an important tool to hook the reader. I get a feel for how the characters will react in a situation with conversation. A book with a lot of telling me about a character, what he/she is thinking or what happened to them without conversation to me is telling me and not showing me....as the old adage goes, "show, don't tell!" I get turned off quicker on a book that doesn't have much conversation or none at all in the first chapter.

    Again, thank you for your blog. I intend to keep following it.

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  36. I have another "Don't" to add: Don't
    introduce your protagonist by having him or her looking into a mirror, describing or analyzing her/himself for the sole benefit of the reader. That's one horse that's been beaten way too often. :)

    -Ms. Lee Wardlaw

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  37. YES!

    Finally. I agree with everything here, and in addition I agree with some of the posters above, especially the one who mentioned mirrors - I personally think a character 'musing' in a mirror AT ANY STAGE is a killer.

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  38. Many thanks to Publitariat and Passive Guy for reviving this post from last year.

    Lee--you're so right about the mirror thing. Some things aren't "wrong" so much as they're simply done to death.

    Claire--I'm glad you agree. A lot of people--like Anon above--don't.

    So Anon: I wrote this when the indie revolution was in its infancy. These rules are based on what publishers and agents want. There's no "book police" who will come and fine you for being a Henry James in an Elmore Leonard world.

    One of the great things about the indie revolution is that people don't have to follow rules any more. If you want to write a stream of consciousness, plot-free, Kerouac-Joycean 10-volume-novel about your belly button lint--you can do it. The marketplace will decide if anybody wants to read it. If they don't, that may not matter to you one bit--and that's OK, too.

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  39. This is a great post! I breathed a sigh of relief when my main character opens in an awkward situation with another person! Thanks for the tips...glad Hope Clark linked this today!

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