“In fantasy” is in parentheses, because technically this can apply to any fiction if you wish.
Character introduction, whether it’s in the beginning or middle of the story, is huge. It may seem small, but if your goal as a writer is to say “this person stands, out remember they are important” that can be harder to pull off than may seem.
But don’t fear. Let’s talk about it.
Have a Goal in Mind at the Beginning
A writing professor once told me in a playwriting class that “The audience will believe the first person on stage.”
Reliable or not, the first person on stage is the one the readers are going to connect. Furthermore, they are the ones the readers rely on to tell them story, introduce the conflict, the world, etc. So choose them wisely. They could be the protagonist, they could be a side character, it doesn’t matter.
The POV character is the one you introduce first. Remember the reader is going to trust them because they’re the only one that they can trust.
Your first introduction in this manner should have a goal. You need to tell me as the reader “Why?” (I’ll get more into whys in a bit). As a writer, you should actively be trying to tell the reader something about the story at large: a secret, the main conflict, the world, etc.
This is why I avoid “A day in the life” beginnings where characters wake up in the morning, go about their day, and then something happens later that finally starts the plot.
A good way to remember this, in my mind is to try and introduce more than one thing. Start with 2 at least, if you’re unsure. For example:
- The character: the person who is telling the story/we see the story through.
- Something else regarding the plot at large: Another character, the plot, a secret, an object, an important location, etc.
I call this a “two birds, one stone” intro. Not only do you introduce me to an important character and tell me about them, but you also tell me what is happening in the story.
Action. Action. Action.
Make your character do something. This not only ties into “two birds, one stone”, but it also shows me important things about the character.
Starting with action also helps you avoid info-dumping at the beginning. We learn about your characters better through their actions and choices than we do anything else.
But be warned, here be dragons.
If you start with you character fleeing for their life (good), don’t have them have some philosophical inner-monologue. Don’t make them have a conversation with their partner-in-crime about something else while they are out-of-breath running for their lives. It doesn’t make any sense.
Start with action, start with dialogue, but make sure it makes sense to what the characters are actually doing.
Don’t Tell Me What They Look Like.
The short answer: I don’t care what your character looks like at the beginning of the story.
Long answer: I don’t know this character, but I want to. I don’t hook onto what characters look like, I hook onto their actions.
This is the same in real life. If you’re taking a class I took and want to know about the professor, and I tell you “Oh she is older with gray hair, wears long skirts, is tall, wears glasses.” that tells you nothing about what kind of person/professor they are. Instead you’d want me to tell you if they come to class on time, are they strict, what are their policies on technology in class, how available are they for help, are they nice, etc.
The only place this is acceptable is if the looks are somehow important to what the character is doing. If your character is hiding from the law but has a very obvious very unique identifier (a scar, tattoo, etc.), telling me about it (briefly) is okay.
If I read one more story that starts with a character doing their hair in front of a mirror and thinking about what they look like, I’m gonna scream.
Keep it Small.
Don’t introduce me to the entire royal court in the first 3 pages. I really have to remember all these names? Are these characters actually important? If your character is royalty, they aren’t going to muse on the names of everyone there, seeing as how this situation is probably familiar. It just takes up space that you could be using to further the story or tell me about the character.
Introduce me to small amounts of characters. This will depend on the situation, but it’s a good rule to only focus on people who are important to the story at large and don’t overwhelm the reader with lists of random people, what they look like, what they like to do. You’re not showing me your character’s online dating profile, you’re trying to tell me a story.
Avoid Lists and Showing Not Telling.
“Protagonist McGee was a short woman with long brown hair. She loved nature and animals, and would do anything for her friends and family. Her favorite color was purple. She was in love with Prince McHandsome, but she was a very shy, modest girl and he would never notice her.”
I just barfed.
Don’t give the reader a laundry list of the characters’ qualities and attributes. Why? Because the reader doesn’t care yet, and if it’s not a plot-relevant detail (like their favorite color), they really don’t care. You have to make them care.
If your character loves animals, show them going hunting but getting upset when they have to kill a rabbit for food. If your character is in love with Prince McHandsome, but is too shy to say anything, show the character stuttering or making an idiot of themselves in front of him.
You don’t have to introduce all of your character’s qualities on the first meeting. Show me how they react to the situation they’re in and then go from there. Let it unfold and don’t rush it. That’s why you should avoid lists.
Which brings me to:
Let the Situation Guide It.
Don’t force your character into a situation where they have to act a certain way in order to be properly introduced.
Think of your goal for the intro, what the situation is and why it’s that way. Then let the character react to it.
Your character is being invited to the royal court for some reason (preferably one that has to do with the plot). How do they react? Have they been there before? Are they the confident type? Are they shy/nervous? Is there a lot of pressure to make a good impression? Are there secrets that need to be carefully guarded? Do they have to dance but suck at dancing?
Let the circumstances guide what you character does, and by extension, what we learn about them. Maybe they’re nervous because they’re having a secret affair with one of the royals. Maybe they have to sneak around under cover of darkness or in disguise. The choices are yours and it’s all you oyster in this regard.
Let the circumstances be the box you work in, and then go from there.
Another gem of advice I got from the same writing professor. This can be a really simple question to answer, but answer it all the same.
What is different about this day in the character’s life that you start it then?
Again simple. Maybe the king is going to be assassinated today, maybe they’re getting betrothed, maybe their secret will be discovered.
This is another reason why you should avoid “Day in the life” intros. They don’t tell the reader what is different about today.
It also helps you avoid the mundane, like sitting in front of the mirror grooming, or waking up, or making dinner, or taking a crap on the privy, or whatever. If the crap in the privy is the same as every other crap on the privy, then you don’t have to get into it.
Don’t Give it All Up too Early.
Whether you introduce a character on page 1 or page 206, don’t tell me their entire life story when we first meet them. Especially if they’re important characters with important secrets, and the like.
In a playwriting class I took, I wrote out some scenes that took place a bit early in the story. When we were doing critique circles, one point that was made about the scene was that one of the characters gave up everything, admitted to all suspicions, explained all their motivations, and so on in their second scene. The question brought up was “Why, would this person give it all up right then?”
They were right to ask that question. It helped make the work better.
The biggest reason not to do this is because it makes no sense. In real life we don’t learn someone’s darkest secrets or life story when we first meet them. In a narrative, it’s often the stronger choice to hold out on the secrets until the opportune time to reveal them.
As well don’t make your characters automatically understand each other when they first meet each other. I call it “over-perceptiveness”. If Protagonist McGee meets Good-Friend Sally and Protagonist just automatically understands Sally and can know who Sally is under the surface or her exterior within like 2 minutes, that’s just cheap. Unless Protagonist is mind-reader or knew of Sally’s past before meeting her, then Protagonist isn’t going to be able to see right through Sally, especially if Sally has everyone else fooled.
Get Creative with Introductions
Two reasons: It’s entertaining, and because it adds dimension to characters.
It allows you to toy with the reader’s perception of the character.
For example, I once heard of someone wanting to introduce a bad guy but didn’t want to make them cartoonishly evil on the first meeting. It hit me then, introduce your bad guy doing something “good” and your good guy doing something “bad”.
If your bad guy is an evil prince, show him volunteering at an orphanage at the beginning, genuinely out of the goodness of his heart, or making friends, or just helping an old lady cross the street. After that, have them go to their bad guy meeting and reveal that they aren’t all good.
Maybe your good guy needs to steal or kill someone. Show them doing this and then reveal their intentions to be good ones, perhaps.
Those are simple examples but that’s why you should toy with them, and get creative. This can really hook your readers in, and it would definitely make me turn the page to chapter two almost immediately.
In real life, behavior alters when we meet a new person and we even act differently when we’re around different groups of people.
There are studies on this that people will essentially adopt “roles” depending on the group, even in groups of good friends. In one of my social circles I tend to be a bit more sarcastic, in another I’m calmer and collected, in another I’m very outgoing and lead a lot of conversations, and so forth. It’s not being “fake”, I consider it being “myself”, albeit little tweaks.
You can observe this in your own life. How does a group dynamic shift when a new person enters the conversation? What tensions are there? What happens when Negative Nancy shows versus Fun-Loving Fred?
This should apply to you characters. Play with the dynamic, play with the tension. It can tell the reader a lot about how the characters feel about each other. If Suspicious Sam shows up, how do they change the way they act? If the love interest shows up, what changes? Who has tension with whom? Etc.
Introducing Important Characters Later On
Now it’s best to introduce important characters, as in ones that are “keys” to the story fairly early on, so don’t wait too long. Otherwise it looks like “Ah, ha the random scholar who we never met before suddenly has the secret on the Evil Wizard’s greatest weakness!” and it’s cheap and too convenient.
So here’s the dilemma: You have this character who is imperative to the plot, but comes in a little bit into the story, but you can’t give it all up right away either. What to do.
You can do a POV, but if that’s not useful to you, you have to find some other way.
Usually the way this happens is the “random encounter” some mysterious force “draws” the protagonist to this new person. But the problem is that there is no reason for it. It’s just a vague “aura” or “presence” of someone random and the protagonist is the only one that sees it.
Now people can be drawn to people. Maybe your protagonist is pretty perceptive, who knows. Whatever it is, please for the love of all that is holy, explain what it is. Tell the reader why this random character is different from all the other random stranger that this person encounters.
Please avoid things like weird eye colors or look based things. Believe me there are plenty of ways to do it that aren’t just these things.
- The new character notices the protagonist first. Approaches them first.
- The new character has their own agenda and is seeking the protagonist out.
- They carry themselves a certain way (this is valid, people do notice those things).
- They are dressed in a certain way that associates them with something else plot relevant (a faction or guild).
- Some unique object. (jewelry, pins, a book, a wand, whatever.)
Really it can be anything, but avoid vague things. Make it specific.
You also need to drop clues as to why this person is important. Again, it can be anything, but keep it subtle, make it make sense. The knowledge that saves the day should not just come out of nowhere.
Avoid Making it Random or Convenient.
Your characters are desperately searching for ancient and surprise! They just happened to run across a scholar in a tavern who knows all about it!
Again it’s lazy and cheap and then your characters don’t actually have to do anything to reap the reward.
You’re clever enough to figure out a way to make something work, so go hard. Make it difficult, make it sensical.
It’s a subtle art, but with the amount of variety and potential here, there is so much you can do. Read your favorite works and see what they did. How were your favorite characters introduced?