Critique: 6 Tips for Introducing Characters

Most of the time, I hate real-life introductions. For one thing, I almost always forget the person’s name in the rush of shaking hands, smiling, and saying something charmingly banal. Then there’s the small talk, important but often tedious. Squirm. But that’s most of the time—because occasionally I run into one of those special people who is just brilliant at introductions. You know the ones. Just like a good hook in a story, these people immediately grab your attention. You go from being interested in getting to the point to being interested in them.

That, right there, is the main secret in introducing characters in your story, especially in the first chapter when you’re using these characters to hook readers into sticking around past the small talk.

Successfully introducing characters in a way that highlights all their fantastic potential is one of the trickiest parts of writing a strong first chapter. Part of this challenge is that these characters must indeed offer potential. Experienced readers are quick to intuit that flat character introductions signal characters who lack staying power to support an entire story.

Then there’s the technical challenges of choosing the right descriptive details to show who these characters are, without bogging down the story in too much early information. When introducing multiple characters at once (as you almost always will be), the challenge increases, since you also have to juggle dialogue attributions, multiple descriptions, motivations, subtext, and more.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the seventh in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Kelly Cliff for sharing from her urban fantasy Urban Warriors. She noted:

I guess my main concerns are if I’m handling dialogue well and making things interesting, as well as making sure my characters’ personalities feel different from each other while not straight-up telling everything about them. This is a first draft so it needs work.

Let’s take a look! The bolded entries and subscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.

“Eva, nice to see you. Come in.”1

She2 couldn’t help tugging at her hoodie as she entered. Her torn black jeans and old checkered shirt contrasted sharply with Greg’s suit and the beautiful entryway.3

“Blitz!”

A large green blanket hit him in the face.4 With a grunt he pulled it off of his head. Carissa5 rushed down the stairs after it, today clad in an octopus-themed sweatshirt and rainbow jeans.

“Oh, hi Eva. Blitz, you lost and now you need to wear that.”

A frown formed on his brow. “A blanket?”

“No, silly!” She grabbed the fabric and shook it out to reveal a dinosaur suit. “It took a long time to find that. All day, remember?”

This time real panic etched his face. “Today?”

Eva covered her mouth with her hand. Only a suspicion of a laugh escaped. She coughed.

Rogue6, I have to go to court today!”

The girl6 shrugged. “Rules are rules. Sorry, gotta run!” She hurried out the door.

6 Tips for Introducing Characters Without Confusing Readers

Speaking generally, you have two basic goals to accomplish when you introduce characters.

Get Readers Interested in the Characters

This involves injecting your characters’ unique personalities into their introductory descriptions, actions, and dialogue—so readers will get a sense of these people as quickly as possible and be intrigued by their personalities, dichotomies, and humanity (or lack thereof). Basically, this is the essence of a well-drawn Characteristic Moment.

Keep Readers Oriented

In trying to introduce all the most interesting aspects of a character(s), we end up juggling a lot of information. Most of the time, the true trick is to distill all that info into tiny cues that don’t slow down the story’s forward progression. Regardless the actual amount of info you’re sharing, you must share it in an organized way that allows readers to assimilate it without confusion, so they can move on with a clear idea of the new characters.

In short, your ultimate goal in introducing characters should be to bring them onstage with the least amount of information possible but in a such a way that even small walk-on characters are easily memorable when they re-enter the story later on.

Readers should never have to ask, “Who?

That said, let’s take a look at a few ways Kelly can tighten up her characters’ introductory scene to achieve these two goals.

1. Establish Unique Character Voices Right Away

Some of the most important words a character will ever speak are his first words. Ideally, the first words out of a character’s mouth should immediately give readers a sense of who this person is. You can accomplish this via a number of nuances, including:

  • What the character says.
  • Why the character says what he says.
  • The specific word choices that indicate background, personality, mood, and intention.
  • The accompanying body language and action beats that further clarify (or perhaps contrast) the actual dialogue.

This is doubly important when an opening line of dialogue not only introduces the character but also the story itself, as in Kelly’s excerpt: “Eva, nice to see you. Come in.” This is a reasonable way for just about any person to acknowledge another person. But by that very credibility, it doesn’t offer much in the way of personality. It would be better to introduce the speaker with a line of dialogue that only he would say.

2. Name Characters When Necessary to Avoid Confusion

It’s almost always preferable to name characters as soon as you introduce them. Even when a character’s name is made clear in the dialogue, it’s still usually best to anchor her identity by repeating it in the text rather than opting for the greater narrative intimacy but also greater potential for confusion offered by a pronoun.

In the excerpt, the speaking character names the POV character—“Eva.” But because we don’t yet know the speaker, we can’t be certain the “she” that opens the next paragraph isn’t the speaker, rather than Eva. Even if readers orient quickly, there’s still the risk of that initial blip of confusion—which is definitely not something to take a chance on in the opening paragraphs. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix. All you have to do is name the character.

3. Deftly Weave in Personal Descriptors

Descriptions are tricky, especially in openings, since they can easily careen into info-dump territory. But they’re also extremely important, since they not only ground the scene, but also allow you to add further introductory details. Describing a character’s appearance, clothing, and personal environment can offer a great deal of information in as little as a sentence.

Kelly does a perfect job with this, via a quick contrast of the characters’ clothing. She doesn’t overdo it, and it feels unobtrusive since the description is both quick and pertinent—it hints at the protagonists’s inner feelings about herself, the other character, and the setting.

4. Ground Characters in the Setting

Just as important as introducing the characters themselves is introducing the setting in which they’re acting. Not only will the setting help you define them (i.e., how comfortable they are in this place), it also gives readers something to visualize. However, this only works if readers feel grounded enough within the setting to understand where the various characters are positioned.

This becomes even more important when additional characters enter the scene. Readers need to understand from where the new characters are entering and where they are positioned in relation to the already introduced characters.

Kelly introduces a third character onto the scene by describing the protagonist’s first awareness of her: a blanket flying through the air out of nowhere. Although this is an accurate description of the protagonist’s experience, it’s potentially disorienting for readers who currently lack enough information to visualize the scene. Also, unlike the protagonist, readers have no idea what the blanket may signify, since they don’t yet know of Carissa’s existence and aren’t able to quickly recognize that a flying blanket probably originated with a lively friend.

The flying blanket does seem a good Characteristic Moment of Carissa. But it would be better to at least indicate from where the blanket came flying (the stairs), or perhaps even to immediately indicate that the blanket was thrown (instead of materializing). Even giving Carissa’s initial bit of dialogue (“Blitz!”) a speaker tag would help, since readers don’t yet have any reason to think that line is spoken by someone other than the two already-introduced characters.

5. Separate New Actors/Speakers With New Paragraphs

Especially in scenes in which you will be introducing a number of characters in a short amount of time, you will want to do everything possible to streamline the experience and avoid confusion. One of the simplest ways to do this is to make sure you’re correctly using paragraph breaks to guide your readers’ experience (something we’ve talked about in a previous critique post).

Just as we separate multiple speakers’ dialogue onto separate paragraphs, we should also separate multiple actors’ actions. When Carissa arrives on the scene, her initial action (throwing the blanket) should be separated from Greg’s reaction, then separated again from her running down the stairs. Her first line of dialogue could then be attached to her action paragraph.

Behind Greg, Carissa rushed down the stairs. “Blitz!” When he turned, she hurled a blanket into his face.

With a grunt, he pulled it off his head.

Carissa ran down the rest of the stairs. Today, she wore an octopus-themed sweatshirt and rainbow jeans.“Oh, hi, Eva. Blitz, you lost and now you need to wear that.”

6. Use Nicknames and Titles With Care

When naming characters, consistency is almost always best. Nicknames and titles (e.g., “the lawyer” or “the girl”) should be used with consciousness and care. Especially within the narrative itself, it’s best to stick to one naming convention for each character.

When you do use a nickname in dialogue make sure readers know who is being referenced. This is especially important in introductory scenes when readers are just learning the characters’ proper names—and often learning them via dialogue as well. Introducing multiple characters at once is tricky enough; it gets confusing fast when readers must learn not just the characters’ actual names but also their nicknames.

Most of the characters in Kelly’s excerpt (which I didn’t include in its entirety due to space) have nicknames, which I’m guessing are “alter-ego” names referencing some special skill or superpower. My recommendation would be to introduce these nicknames more gradually. Especially in these opening paragraphs, the identities of “Rogue” and “Blitz” aren’t immediately clear (I initially thought Blitz was some kind of tag game, having to do with the thrown blanket).

***

Introducing characters is one of the joys of writing—since it means bringing characters on stage and letting them do their thing. It is also one of the most meticulous procedures in all fiction. If you can master it, you will give readers the great pleasure of an immediate immersion into the exciting world of your characters.

My thanks to Kelly for sharing her excerpt, and my best wishes for her story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your biggest challenge right now in figuring out how to write a better first chapter? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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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. Thanks for another interesting and informative article. In the WIP I want to have a complex relationship between Luke, who is a rookie cop and Jane who is a highly skilled Arcturian special agent. I want this to start off badly so that there has to be a lot of sorting out between them.

    The setup is that a dead body has been found on the beach, killed by an Arcturian weapon, of which there are none on the planet. This mystery causes the local police to turn out, while at the same time Jane is dispatched to investigate. She turns up, wearing an identical weapon…

    As she (Jane) walked back to the spaceship she heard the breathy hum of a Cowper-process engine, glanced around and saw a balloon-tyred police car roll to a halt on the other side of the body. Then she heard footsteps sprinting towards her, followed by the rasp of a boot following her up the ladder.
    Quickly she opened a starline connection to Deep Space Control on Homeworld. ‘Controller Spence, I’ve got company.’
    ‘Are you asking for permission to fire?’
    She smiled, wryly. ‘I won’t need permission. He’s armed.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘It’s probably all right. He’s the local cop.’
    A young man in uniform strode through the airlock, right hand on his sidearm. ‘All right, lady, you’re coming with me. I’m arresting you for-’
    Jane looked at him critically. ‘You look too young for that uniform,’ she said.
    ‘What? Look, lady I’m the law here–’
    Jane shook her head slowly. ‘Has anyone ever explained the idea of diplomatic immunity to you?’
    ‘Er–’
    ‘Do you know what the protocol of interstellar law is?’
    ‘What’s that got to do with it?’
    ‘Controller Spence,’ said Jane, ‘Would you be so good as to ask the duty midshipman to patch the local police commander into the voice loop?’
    Spence’s voice came from the speakers. ‘Of course. Go ahead, Mr. Norris.’
    Jane turned the officer. ‘Would you mind identifying yourself?’
    ‘Officer Luke Hewson, badge number 2715.’
    A new voice joined the conversation. ‘Hewson! Where the bloody hell are you, and what have you done this time?’
    ‘I–I’m in a spaceship, sir. I’m trying to arrest the pilot. She’s carrying a gun sort of thing that the doctor thinks matches the burn mark on the body.’
    ‘Hewson! That’s a bloody Arcturian ship. One with faster than light capability. Under the protocol of interstellar law it’s Arcturian territory. It’s just like the damned embassy, and you can’t go charging in there either. The moment you stepped through that airlock you stopped being a cop, you became an illegal immigrant with an unlicensed weapon.’
    ‘Yes, Sir, but…’
    ‘And another thing, Hewson. When the body washed up that ship was about a hundred and fifty light years away, with the same pilot. That sounds like a damn good alibi to me.’
    ‘Er–Right sir. What happens now?’
    ‘I think Space Fleet are about to tell you.’
    ‘Technically,’ said Jane, one hand on her energy weapon, ‘You’ve almost caused a major diplomatic incident, and as you’re carrying an unauthorised weapon on Arcturian territory I could shoot you without warning. Practically I don’t want to get blood on the carpet. Would you like a cup of coffee instead?’
    ‘Oh my gawd! Coffee?’
    ‘I’m glad we sorted that out amicably. Do you take cream and sugar? I’ll disconnect starline now so we aren’t interrupted. Do sit down.’
    Hewson dropped onto the day cabin couch while Jane busied herself at the galley controls.
    ‘Oh Lord,’ he said, ‘what have I done to my career?’
    Jane looked at him, a faint smile at her lips. ‘Probably ended it–Unless–’
    ‘Tell me.’
    ‘We could team up.’

    What I’m trying to do is develop the contrast between the pure hearted, but inexperienced Luke and the cool, sophisticated Jane, while at the same time showing Jane manipulating like mad to get control of the situation.

  2. Very helpful. I immediately re-read the first page of my work in progress and used this article as a checklist. It was a useful exercise for me.

  3. montse cabanas says

    Very usefull, as I’m about to write a scene in which an old character of my first book is going to appear, not phisically, but in a computer screen. He is the antagonist, and the appeareance should be quick, but surprising and epic.And the readers should understand his essence in just a few lines.

  4. Amy Manzo-Nixon says

    I also thought Blitz was the name of a tag game.

  5. I had #1 in mind recently with a couple of my characters who come into the WIP novel later, but still matter to the story. I set them up to make an entrance in a standout way. First impressions count with fictional characters, too 😀

  6. These tips are really helpful. I took special note of the differentiation between not just what the character says initially, but why she says it and the way it’s said. Word choices and speech patterns tell a lot about characters right away. Nice post!

  7. I thought Blitz was a completely new character (while wondering if it could be the name of the game). I also thought Rogue was a fifth character.

    This is a great decomposition. One more thing I’d sugest, is that the first two characters exchange a few more words to establish themselves before the third character is introduced. And if, for example, blanket hit Blitz in the face while he was in the middle of a sentence, replying to the first character, I think it would be much clearer that the blanket hit Greg and that Blitz and Greg are the same character. It would also tie the sequence of events more tightly. As it is now, the events feel disconnected.

  8. This is really helpfull. I like your format with these excerpts, insightfull. Thanks!

    My biggest issue with the beginning of my book: the normal world of my protagonist is boring and restricting for her. So I struggle to show this boring world and her life in it, and her inner questions (whether this is really it, whether she should accept that this is just her life), without being boring and let my readers fall asleep.
    I decided to let the inciting event happen relatively early to avoid the dragging of the story and I quite like it so far.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If the character herself is interesting, even in an “uninteresting” setting, that will usually be enough to pull readers in.

  9. Harald Johnson says

    Great post, Katie! Question: what about introducing recurring characters in the second book of a series (in the Opening)? Any special guidelines?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I touch on this some in this post: How to Ace the First Act in Your Sequel. Basically, my recommendation is to treat the intro to your sequel much the same as you do your first book. Choose strong Characteristic Moments for your characters and treat the events of the first book the same way you normally would backstory–fill readers in only as and when they need to know.

  10. Timothy D Madsen says

    I do love the nicknames, but agree that it took too much reading between the lines to figure them out. One of the reasons, I think, that we have such a hard time is that Kelly doesn’t have enough blocking in the scene.

    For example, when Carissa says the name Blitz, Greg should turn and look, like anyone would when someone says their name. That ties him to the name and gives the writer a chance to mention the third character’s presence before she acts. Similarly, she should turn to him after addressing Eva before continuing the dialogue about losing and being required to wear the dinosaur suit, to make it clear the nickname applies to him not Eva (which is how I read that line the first time). Finally, he needs to shake the dinosaur suit at Carrissa (or something), with her name showing up in the narrative, before calling her Rogue to tie that nickname to her.

    Also, a tweak to the dialogue would make it clearer that Blitz is a name, not a game word or a pseudo swear word (which is how I read it at first, having spent too much time listening to Brandon Sanderson lately). Something like, “Heads up, Blitz!” or simply, “Hey, Blitz!” Elsewhere, once the nicknames have been established, you could go for the name alone, but a little extra signalling in the beginning would much more helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point about adding the nickname to further dialogue to distinguish it as a name.

  11. Nice post. It’s my owner to reach out this informative post that really helpful to all those people who don’t aware about this useful stuff. Keep posting & sharing!

  12. M.L. Bull says

    Great reminder for introducing characters. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  13. In fantasy what are the typical roles one may like to see in the main characters? I’ve already gone over the typical swordsman,archer and blacksmith but what other roles can fit in to adventurous characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That depends on the setting of the fantasy. These days, many look beyond the typical Sword & Sorcery archetypes for more original takes on character roles. The options are as vast as your imagination.

  14. I have a question regarding consistency in how a character is referred to. You said nicknames and titles should be used with care and it is best to stick to one consistent reference. That makes sense, but what if the story is told through two POVs in which the different characters would think of them differently? For example, in my book the main character is Raisa and when it is her POV, that’s what I call her. However, when I switch POV to the secondary character, she is the queen, or Queen Raisa.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If possible, I like to maintain continuity across POVs. But this isn’t strictly necessary. What’s most important is honoring the POV. Especially in an example like this where’s there’s no risk of confusion, I see no problem with calling her “Queen Raisa” in the secondary POV.

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