Why the Human Element Is All-Important to the Beginning of Your Story

This week’s video uses an example from China Miéville’s steampunk fantasy Perdido Street Station to illustrate why it’s so important for your characters to grab readers right from the beginning of your story.

Video Transcription:

The beginning of any story is a checklist of must-have elements. One of those elements is providing the reader with an immediate personal connection to the characters. In some stories, this can be difficult, since complicated plots and settings often demand the author lay down a foundation before exploring the human side of the characters. But even the most distant or plot-heavy novel will stand a better chance of hooking readers if it can open with its characters in a situation that will appeal on an emotional or gut level.

China Miéville’s lauded steampunk fantasy Perdido Street Station is a complex book that winds its way through an intricate plot and an incredibly detailed setting. Miéville spends the first quarter of the book leisurely developing both the plot and the setting, but he was wise enough to know that, in order to convince readers to keep reading through even the driest and most difficult parts of his story, he first had to give them characters they could care about.

After a brief and poetic hook, Perdido Street Station opens with a very human element—two people in love. Even though readers know nothing about these characters at first, and even though this romantic relationship is a minor point in the story, utilizing this human element in the opening chapter gave readers something they could immediately relate to and grasp. Because they were given a reason to care about these characters, they needed little convincing to keep reading, even when Miéville was forced to turn his attention to less relatable and compelling material. By the time the scene is officially set for the catastrophes to come, and he’s able to return to his characters and their relationship, readers are already hooked.

Tell me your opinion: Does your story open with a human element?

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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. Yes. And I enjoyed Perdido Street Station.

  2. There were a lot of things I like about Perdido Street Station and a lot of things I didn’t. But it was a good reading experience.

  3. When I first started developing my current work in progress – it was mostly about the world and magic system. However, now that I have started building my characters I am seeing the human element take over. Which is really exciting for me because the human element is most important to me when I read.

  4. Worldbuilding and the like can really monopolize a writer’s attention, and it *does* deserve a lot of attention. But characters have to come first, or it won’t matter how brilliant your world is.

  5. Yes it does. One highly successful author suggests dumping your character into scalding hot water right away, but I chose to let the reader get to know my MC first so they will care about him when the hot bath happens.

  6. That’s what I prefer as well. Hooking a reader doesn’t have to mean pouring on the danger. Really, all a hook requires is piquing the reader’s curiosity, and, often, the best way to achieve that is through character more than plot.

  7. Excellent advice. I always try to open right on the protagonist and set him in motion from page one. Unless your characters and settings are WAYYYY out there, the reader wants to know that they can invest time in a likable character right out of the gate. In my humble opinion that is…

  8. I would argue that’s true even *when* your settings are way out there. Character first, always first. If the reader can relate to the character in some way, it will also help ground him in the far-out setting.

  9. Since my stuff is “character-driven” I sure hope so! 😀 and at least 3 of my novels are in first person, so that’s a bit more intimate, as well.

  10. Character-driven stories are usually (although not always) way ahead of the ballgame on this one. It’s the plot-, concept-, setting-heavy stories that have to be particularly savvy about working in this most important of all elements.

  11. My novel begins with my MC hiding from his mother. Of course, he’s only six at the time. (He’s older for the rest of the novel.) I hope that makes the reader curious.

  12. Sounds like a scary mom!

  13. Congrats! You have received an award on my blog. Stop by to claim it.

  14. very cool! And hey! It took me to Youtube to watch the video. Even MORE cool~

  15. @Krista: Whoo! Thanks so much, Krista.

    @LTM: Thanks for watching! Glad you enjoyed the video!

  16. “Sounds like a scary mom!”

    Actually, the MC is scarier than his mom.

  17. Now, I really am scared! 😉

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