Checklist for Beginning Your Story: Introducing Your Characters

Hello, everyone, and welcome! Today, we’re going to be talking about beginnings and specifically about how to introduce your characters in the beginning of your story, how to hook readers with your character, and how to set up all the important parts of your character’s development and arc that will happen in the rest of the story.

If you prefer, you can watch today’s content on YouTube or listen to the podcast. This post was actually inspired by a couple of questions I received about endings, which I’m going to talk about in a future video. But first I thought I’d bookend it by introducing some important considerations about how to begin your story. Ultimately, a lot of problems we may have with the ending of our story come down to things that we didn’t quite set up right in the beginning. If you can get the beginning of your story right, then generally speaking, the rest of the story will work out pretty well. By the time you get to the ending, everything will fit together and make sense.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

However part of knowing how to begin your story has to do with knowing how you want to end your story. And not all of us know that. Sometimes we will be better off figuring out how we want the story to end in an outline or just figuring it out in our heads before we sit down to write it. That can answer a lot of questions about the best choices for the beginning.

If that’s not how you work or this is not how this particular story came to you, then once you do reach the end in your first draft, you’ll want to circle back to the beginning and make sure that you’ve considered some of the things we’re going to talk about and how they tie in with the ending you have created and whether your beginning sets up the ending in the way you want it to.

I’m going to be talking about beginnings in two different videos. This month, we’re going to talk about considerations for character in the beginning. In the next video, we’ll talk about considerations for plot and creating a structural hook for your story.

Beginnings are so complex. There’s so much you have to think about and juggle in the beginning of a story. Not only is it a scene in its own right, and not only does it carry this momentous burden of needing to hook readers in and convince them to invest in your story and keep reading, but you also have to lay the groundwork for everything that follows. You also have to create this perfectly orchestrated setup that then allows the dominoes in the rest of your story to knock into each other in a perfect line.

>>Click here to read Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist, Pt. 1: Hooking Readers

>>Click here to read Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist, Pt. 2: Writing the Opening Scene

>>Click here to read Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist, Pt. 3: Introducing the Story

There’s a lot to think about. I always say the beginning is the hardest part of the story, in light of how complex it is and just how many moving parts you have to juggle and how much pressure there is on getting it right. If you don’t get it right, the rest of the story can be great, but nobody’s going to read it.

Introducing Your Characters in a Characteristic Moment

The first thing to think about when introducing characters in the beginning of your story is how to use two particular techniques. The first one is the Characteristic Moment.

Not all stories put their primary focus on character in the beginning. However, for my money, for 90% of stories beginning with character is your best bet. This is because readers are there for the characters. At the very least, characters are the avatars of the action unfolding in the story. Readers want to be able to relate to them and have somebody we’re interested in and think is going to keep our attention as we continue with this story, whether we’re watching a two-hour movie or investing maybe 10–12 hours in reading a novel.

Whenever possible, open with a strong emphasis on character. Specifically, if it’s possible, open with your protagonist. This isn’t possible in all stories. But if you can open with your protagonist, particularly in a novel, it gives you the opportunity to hook readers on a personal and relational level before you get into the action.

This is particularly true for written stories—narrative fiction—in which any action will always have to be explained. It’s not the same experience as when you’re in a movie. When a movie is very visual, that in itself can often be a great hook. Also keep in mind when you have someone who’s deciding if they want to read your book, they’re not as captive an audience as they are when they’ve started a movie. Particularly if they’re in a movie theater, they’ve paid for it, they’re sitting there, they’re going to watch it. This means movies often have a more leisurely opportunity for unfolding the first couple of scenes and the introduction of the character.

Whereas in a book, readers start out skimming and flipping through pages as they’re deciding, Is this worth my time? Am I going to be able to ground and get present and actually pay attention to this book? Is it going to grab my attention?

Dialogue is one of the single best ways to hook readers. Dialogue necessarily indicates there are characters on screen. If you begin with your protagonist, who is presumably the most interesting person in your story, this person should be able to create the impetus and the momentum to convince readers to follow them throughout the entire plot.

Your protagonist is your single greatest hook. Beginning with your protagonist kills two birds with one stone. To begin with, you’re introducing this very important character and the situations around them. But also ideally, whatever they’re doing is a fantastic hook that grabs readers and pulls them in. (We’ll be talking more about the structural hook in next month’s video.)

If you’re beginning your story with your protagonist, the Characteristic Moment is how you introduce your character to readers. Generally speaking, a characteristic moment is the first dramatized scene in which your protagonist takes part. Ideally, what we’re trying to accomplish in a Characteristic Moment is a dramatized event that shows readers who this person is. It demonstrates key aspects of their personality and, more specifically in this opening scene, it demonstrates why they’re interesting and why readers are going to find this person entertaining and want to follow them throughout the story.

Sometimes when writers hear a list of the things to include in your beginning (e.g., the Characteristic Moment, the Hook), they start thinking of scenes that check those boxes, but that are arbitrary. These can feel tacked on, like they’re there just to introduce the character or they’re there just to hook the reader, rather than being an integral part of the scene or the chapter and the entire story that follows.

As you’re going through a checklist like this for your story’s beginning, make sure you’re not just thinking, Oh, this would be a cool scene. I’ll stick it at the beginning of my story and that’ll pull readers into the main story. Rather think, How can I create a Characteristic Moment or a Hook that functions as that first domino leading into the rest of the story, and that also dramatizes the key aspects of the character and their personality and their relationships and actually matters to and affects the plot that follows?

Introducing Characters via Their Relationships

One of the best ways to create a dynamic Characteristic Moment is to also think about what kind of relationships you can bring into this opening scene.

Ideally, an opening scene should feature a relationship that is important to the story. It should be a scene that initiates conflict. It should move the plot toward that main conflict. You want this relationship to be pertinent.

There are many advantages to bringing a relationship dynamic into the first scene. The first is simply entertainment value. Opening with more than one character means you’re starting with at least two people, which gives you the immediate opportunity for dialogue. I like to say dialogue is the purest form of showing rather than telling because dialogue is literally what’s happening. It’s the actual words coming out of your characters’ mouths. You don’t have to describe dialogue at all.

Introducing Characters via Dialogue

Opening with dialogue gives your story’s beginning a sense of immediacy. You’re immediately featuring one of the most entertaining aspects of any story. Dialogue gives you the opportunity for conflict and witty confrontation. It’s a perfect way to show readers who your characters are. You’re showing not telling and allowing readers to see how these characters interact with each other, how their personalities come out through their words, what their default argument tactic is, and how they move through a situation.

Within the context of your story, this relationship dynamic in your first chapter could be between friends and allies or it could be between frenemies at work. It could be cop buddies out on their job. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the primary relationship within the story. Obviously, in a lot of stories (romances, for example), the protagonist doesn’t meet the primary relationship character until later. But you want to pick characters and situations that ideally will show up again later in the story or at the very least foreshadow or mirror situations that will become pertinent and important later on. One of the first things I think about when planning an opening scene is How can I bring in an important relationship character and get the dialogue going as soon as possible?

Introducing Characters via Movement

Another quick tip to energize an opening scene is to think about how you can keep the characters in motion. How can they move? That doesn’t mean they have to be in a kung fu fight or some big action scene right away. Very often that isn’t the best choice, particularly for written narrative fiction. But see if you can impart a sense of movement.

Maybe your characters are walking across the room rather than sitting at a desk or something like that. This immediately creates so much more opportunity to dramatize the world they’re in and to dramatize the characters and show their personality. Always think about how you can keep characters moving, if at all possible, within the context of that opening scene.

Introducing Characters via Their Character Arcs

What factors do you need to be thinking about to make sure these character introductions feel integral to the story? Again, you’re not just trying to think of the most entertaining scene you could possibly dream up and stick it at the beginning of your story. You’re trying to think of the most entertaining scene ever that actually introduces important elements and sets up the story to come. so it all feels like part of a cohesive whole. How you introduce your character in the Characteristic Moment is laying the groundwork for the character arc that will follow in the story.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

The foundation of character arc is the conflict between one mindset and another, between the Lie the Character Believes (a limiting perspective about the world that is now becoming dysfunctional as this story begins) and the thematic Truth (the opposite of the Lie, a more expanded perspective that will allow the character to operate more functionally within their life and within the purview of the plot).

In some stories, characters will overcome the Lie and embrace the Truth. In other stories, they won’t. It depends on what kind of arc that you’ve chosen to tell in your story. Either way, you want to be able to introduce the character’s relationship to the Lie and the Truth in the beginning of your story.

As you’re thinking about what Characteristic Moment is best to begin your story, also think about one that will dramatize your character’s relationship to the Lie. They might start with a belief in the Lie and arc into a belief in the Truth. Or they might arc into a more rigorous relationship with the Lie, where it gets worse. If they’re in a Positive Change Arc, and they begin with this limiting perspective, with the belief in the Lie, then think about ways you can dramatize that in the beginning of the story. (Remember some Lies are very subtle. They’re not always horrible things about people with horrible lifestyles, who are doing really destructive things to themselves or others.)

Think about how you can start to show your character’s relationship to the Lie? The beginning of the story is what kicks the arc all off. There will be a tension suddenly created in this character’s life that hasn’t been there before and that is creating the need for them to evolve out of the limitations of this Lie into a more expanded and functional and effective viewpoint. They’ll be learning this over the course of the story through the action in the plot. This is really what needs to be dramatized within the Characteristic Moment. The point of the Characteristic Moment is that you’re showing readers who this person is. And at the beginning of a Positive Change Arc, this person is someone who believes the Lie and is now beginning to find that ever so slightly uncomfortable. The circumstances of their life are changing to allow this potential for evolving into a more expanded Truth.

If you’re telling a Positive Change Arc and depending on how deep your character is in the Lie, it can be nice to show the potential the character has for evolving into the Truth. Again, a lot of this comes back down to this inner tension between the Lie and the Truth. The character believes this lie, but now that the story is beginning, something feels a little scratchy, a little itchy inside. There’s cognitive dissonance. If you can emphasize that in your opening scene, this is a great opportunity for pertinent conflict that builds right into the need for the external plot conflict.

How can you dramatize your character’s relationship to the Lie in the Characteristic Moment? How can you bring that out? How can you show readers how this Lie is affecting the character? How has it been functional up to this point in their life? How it is now becoming increasingly dysfunctional? And how will it eventually become blatantly dysfunctional to the point where they have to do something once they reach the Inciting Event and the First Plot Point later in the First Act.

Introducing Your Characters via Theme

If you begin your story with this consciousness about the Lie and the Truth, you will also be introducing your story’s most important thematic elements. This will help you create both thematic and tonal unity with everything that follows in your story.

You’re setting a tone for what’s to follow in the story, for how your character interacts with this life. Maybe your story’s beginning is quite funny, or maybe it’s very serious. Maybe it offers life and death stakes, or maybe it’s ironic. Look for whatever tone you’re trying to achieve within your story that is appropriate for how you’re dealing with this character’s arc. You have the opportunity to lay the foundation for that in the beginning of your story.

If you’re able to do that, it’s an amazing way to create a sense of cohesion for your entire story. From the very beginning, there will never be a sense that this is a prologue or just something that’s tacked on to get the necessary introductions out of the way. It will feel very real and very pertinent. It just plunges readers right into the heart of what you’re trying to tell right from the beginning.

Introducing Your Characters via Setting

One final thing to think about in regards to how you introduce characters in the beginning of your story is the setting. The First Act symbolically takes place in the Normal World. The Normal World contrasts the Adventure World of conflict in the Second Act. This is true no matter what your character’s adventure is, even if it’s very prosaic and the character isn’t going on a quest or something like that.

In the beginning of the story, the Normal World is all the characters have known so far. Ultimately, what you’re symbolizing is their initial perspective. The Normal World represents the world of the Lie. It is a world in which the character has been able to operate with this limited mindset because it’s an equally limited world. The Normal World can be a literal “world” if you’re telling science fiction, or it can be something really subtle. The characters may actually leave this setting at the end of the First Act, but the change can be as subtle as something about the setting itself shifting. And that shift could simply be the character’s perspective of the Normal World.

The main point of considering your Normal World in your story’s beginning is to think about how you can choose a setting for this opening scene and this opening dynamic with your protagonist that dramatizes the opening situation they’re in their life.

  • Where do your characters find themselves at the beginning of the story?
  • How is this situation good?
  • How is it bad?
  • Why is it about to change?

That’s what’s what happens in the story. Everything changes. In the beginning, you’re showing readers “here is what’s going to change.” You’re showing them the place from which your character is going to arc.

You truly cannot have a powerful character arc or show a powerful change within a story’s plot unless you lay the groundwork and set the foundation for what is going to be changed or even destroyed. This lays the groundwork for stakes. It sets the context for why this story needs to happen and also how difficult it inevitably will be for the characters. This has the ability to deepen readers’ investment in what you’re writing about. Think about ways you can choose a setting or highlight aspects of your story’s main setting that bring to life your character’s dilemma—this growing tension between their limited perspective and the Truth they’re going to be evolving into.

We see this clearly in dystopian stories which often create an entirely symbolic setting to represent the character’s inner wasteland. As the character enters the Second Act, sometimes that changes and sometimes it doesn’t depending on what type of arc the character is taking. Hunger Games comes to mind. The setting completely changes into this grotesquely corrupt and glitzy and glamorous world in the Capitol. That’s a stark contrast to where we see Katniss in the beginning, in her district, which is run down and everybody’s starving.

The Hunger Games (2012), Lionsgate.

That’s a perfect example of how to create a setting that creates Characteristic Moments. It sets up the necessity for the plot conflict to come and shows how your characters will interact with it based on their relationship to the story’s primary thematic Lie and Truth.

***

Beginnings are so complex. I hear from writers who get frustrated with their beginnings and feel like they just can’t get them right. And I completely relate to this. I’ve never been happy with any beginning I’ve written ever! Remember to give yourself a little grace. Writing a good first chapter is an art form unto itself. Even if you are a master of all the chapters that come after, that first chapter remains a tough little nut to crack.

Next month, we will discuss considerations for setting up the plot in your story’s beginning and first chapter. And then after that, I will be talking about endings and how we can bring everything full circle. Beginnings and endings are linked. If you can set up one correctly, then you have all the tools you need to set up the other correctly.

Have a good week and happy writing!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What techniques are you using for introducing your characters in the beginning of your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this helpful post. I have recently begun a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. I wrote the first chapter with my protagonist in the battle.
    Before this battle, though, there had been another in the north east of a England, and the army had to rush to the south coast to fight William the Conqueror.
    There is nothing about his life before these battles, though. I’m now wondering if I should start earlier and show his life before the battle.

  2. I try to follow your techniques! In this book, the third of a trilogy, I’m doing something different than I usually do and am showing the beginning of MC1’s Lie as well as the first time he sees a ghost (his talent.)The dialogue is between him and his murdered brother. Both are children. It shows MC1’s courage and determination and is a poignant/spooky scene. I thought this would be fun for readers because he’s the favorite character.

    I round out the chapter with the second scene, that involves both MCs from the previous books, grown and in a relationship, at the circus where the murders will take place. I try to show their love and two of MC2’s characteristics, being surly and protective, while making MC1 confront his Lie at the end of the chapter.

    Does that sound like it might work? It’s just the first draft. The first scene and first chapter are a ton of work. I’m not sure about the hook. I feel like the first scene’s hook is for the murder/suspense aspect of the story, and the second scene has a softer hook for the romance aspect. At this point, I’m hoping readers have read the first two books and will enjoy a sweet moment between the lovers with some conflict at the end of the chapter. That’s probably one hook too many, but it felt right when I wrote it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Of course, when in doubt, it’s best to get beta feedback. Generally, I would not advise starting a story so far in a character’s backstory, since it removes readers from the thrust of the main plot and character development. However, as a later book in a series, you have more leeway, since readers are already hooked and probably will enjoy the extra insight into established characters.

  3. Heather Willis says

    In my opening, I thought mostly about introducing the setting and my MC’s nature. He’s a prince’s attendant and probably the most compassionate person in the court, so I introduced him helping some people the prince doesn’t want to bother with and got to show his sibling dynamic with the prince as well (which is essential for how the ending works out). However, I’m now realizing I didn’t think about how I might show either character’s Lie or Truth in this scene. Definitely something I’ll consider in revisions. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Characteristic Moments can be so complex, can’t they? So many angles to think about. But, yes, incorporating the Lie/Truth can often make everything much juicier and more pertinent.

  4. This is such a great post! Thank you for so many great insights into writing beginnings. I’ve been following your posts and podcasts for a while now and I’m so grateful for all the insights and wisdom you generously share. I’m tackling a short story at the moment. I know the beginning is just as important in a short story as a full length novel. Trying to figure out how to include the different points you listed in a paragraph instead of a chapter! My main character is struggling to let go of her past. She has a memory device, which she uses to relive one memory over and over. I’m thinking that as this the key theme and it’s also the lie she needs to let go of, she could be dialoguing with her dead husband within the memory. Ha ha just musing as I type this. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Short stories are a great challenge! Everything is so condensed. There is so much less room for error, and every word counts. Makes my want to write a short story. I haven’t written one in years. Have fun!

  5. Celeste Leo says

    How timely! I’m starting a new series and scribbling possibilities for HOW to start, how to hook the reader, etc. Thank you for your mind-reading skills, LOL!

  6. I always thought beginnings were tough, but this breaks it down nicely. There are dozens of balls for a writer to juggle when writing their opening, all of which are imperative.

    In the book I’m currently writing, I introduced the characters via the moment. It shows one of my protagonist’s situation at home. In the last book I wrote, I introduced them via their relationships. The first chapter opens with the main character’s father coming into her bedroom for their “nightly pow-wow”. I like how the second one worked out, since it showed the MC’s normal world, her goals, her relationships, and sets the stage for the first plot point later on. The proper book opening differs with every book, and it’s fun to experiment!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, you’re not wrong, beginnings *are* tough. :p I’ve always found them the most challenging part of a story. But when they sing, they sing!

  7. I am just beginning my future in writing. I absolutely love your posts.
    I’m taking notes and testing my ideas.
    Thank you K. Your posts are just the class that I need to attend to become the author I want to be.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great, Sondra! Very happy the info is proving useful. All the best with your writing journey!

  8. I’m writing a children’s story. The protagonist is a squirrel who could be more popular among the creatures in the habitat. I’ve rewritten my opening so many times and have yet to be entirely satisfied. I believe opening with comments from the squirrel may be the solution for me. I’m off to give it a try. Thank you.

  9. Your posts in beginnings are perfect timing for me. I’m revising and restructuring after a very long brainstorming, and focusing this month on improving my beginning chapters. In this novel, two characters from different eras are important enough to follow them each, but readers won’t know their relationship/importance to the other until late in the story. So, the tone of each changes. 1920’s rural vs. 1970’s-80s city. One is easier to begin with dialogue and characters, but the other begins in such a lonely place that we meet her internal dialogue for a few pages before any dialogue. Now I wonder if I should change this, or if the loneliness is better shown by her aloneness at first. Decisions, decisions! Your advice is so good and obviously professional. But I struggle to trust my gut and use my voice because I so want to improve my craft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are many examples of beautiful books that begin with pages of internal narrative. However, it is tricky to do well. It’s always a good idea to get some beta reader feedback about whether they are hooked or not.

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