Saturday, October 8, 2011

First Impressions: How to Introduce Gripping Characters

My first post here on Scratchlings includes a clip of Captain Jack Sparrow. How’s that for a first impression?

                Admittedly, Jack may be currently beating me in the category of ‘first impressions’. The casualty with which he salutes hanging skeletons and sails into a harbor on a sinking boat, the slyness with which he outwits the man collecting the fees…

                Less than two minutes of screen time, and we already find ourselves caught up in this character.

                The question is, why?

                There are lots of ways to introduce characters a reader can like from the get-go:

  • Humorous Traits – Jack’s got this part down. The understated hilarity of his every action has us grinning ear to ear long before we hear his first lines of dialogue. His walk, his talk, his train of thought. It makes us smile, and makes us want to see more of him.
  • Heroic Traits – The characters we wish we were like. The noble, daring, genuinely kind souls. The good characters, who don’t flaunt their grandeur. Their most heroic acts might not come until a story’s climax, but they can still show their goodness in small ways throughout the first pages. Whether it’s holding the door for an old lady, or agreeing to risk life and limb to help someone who doesn’t deserve it, they’re kind. And we want that to last, even though we know they have struggles ahead of them. Just remember to give these characters some balance. Even good people have flaws, regrets, and streaks of a darker temper.
  • Relatable Traits – The aspects of a character that we, as readers, can identify with. Characters that have the same thoughts, and feelings, and struggles as we do. Characters who want what they can’t have, and love people who don’t love them back, or can’t understand their family no matter how hard they try. Characters who feel like they have no control over their world, or characters who give in to the same selfish indulgences we do from time to time.

        “Likable” characters are not always noble. They’re not always funny. Sometimes they can be cruel, or clueless, or calculating. They can be pushing at everything and everyone around them, the cause of their own misery. And they might be just fine with that, thank you very much. We don’t have to like a character right away. Just make us feel something about them.

        And finally, when you’re  introducing your main character, get us deep inside the character’s head. When a reader feels like they’ve stepped into a character’s shoes, it’ll make them feel a lot more invested in the story than if they were watching events from a distance.

        Part 2 of your first impression of me: I use a lot of examples.

        Jacob opened the door and saw his aunt standing there. He let her into the house. “Hello, Aunt Jo.”

        What’s our first impression of Jacob?

        At this point, nothing. We have a name. One generic piece of dialogue. Let’s see if we can connect to him a little more in the revised example, this time diving deeper into the scene.

        Jacob swallowed, willing his hand to turn the doorknob. Okay. It’s going to be fine. It’s just your aunt, Jacob. She’s not that bad. Just… abrasive. He forced a smile as he opened the door; it wasn’t much defense against her wrinkled glare. Right. Abrasive. “Here, Aunt Jo, can I take your bag?”

        Now what’s our forming impression of Jacob?

        He’s the kind of person who tries to be nice, even if he doesn’t feel like it. He reassures himself often. He’s trying to be kind to a relative he doesn’t care for, though she’s not about to make it easy for him (I’m sure most of us can relate to that). We might even get a hint of humor.

        In comparison to the first example, we’ve connected more with Jacob. We’ve started to root for him. We want him to succeed in winning over his aunt. We’ve begun to sympathize with him.

        And when a reader can sympathize with a character, it could make that reader a lot more likely to stick it out for the rest of the book.

What are some characters that left a good first impression on you? What about characters that left a bad first impression? Any real life ‘characters’, for good or bad? And what do you think a reader’s first impression of your character would be?
And welcome to Scratchlings, everybody. I’m Silent Pages.


  1. Silent! I'm so happy you YWS people have this blog; it's absolutely adorable in the best of ways. And any blog post starting off with Captain Jack has me at hello. I'd drink rum with him on a desert island any day. :D

    As for my own characters or any character in particular, I just finished "The Girl of Fire and Thorns," and I have to commend Rae Carson on the first impressions of her characters. They're simply delish.

  2. I really enjoyed that an I think I learned a thing or two. I am visiting via Baily and Pay-it-Forward.

  3. Hey there, Scratchlings! I too am visiting thanks to Bailey. On the subject of character, a character's flaw can also be his or her strength. The example that comes to mind is Monk (TV character, but there are spin-off books too, so he's kinda-literary... sorta... kinda...). His OCD heightens his attention to detail which enables him to solve crime. But his OCD also means he struggles with personal relationships and his life is ruled by rituals.

    Great blog. Keep up the good work! :)

  4. This is a great list. And the introduction of Captain Jack Sparrow has to be one of my favorites of all time. Such a great character. Still, I think it's a lot harder to introduce characters in a book than in a movie, since you don't have the added visual aspect.

  5. This is a great post. And I definitely think the entrance of Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the best of all due to Johnny Depp, of course. He completely captures the character in his dialogue and movement.