Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Helping Your Characters Make a Great First Impression, a guest post from Colin Cannici

Jill here! Today's we have a guest post from author Colin Cannici. I really love the concepts he presents in this post and have been thinking a lot about them as I have been writing these past few weeks. I hope you all enjoy this as much as I did.

Colin Cannici is a homeschooled, self-proclaimed genius who doesn't like ice cream. He does, however, have an unstoppable obsession with creating things, particularly stories. That might be why he writes epic fantasy, swashbuckling sea adventures, and superhero stories all at the same time, because he's pretty sure anybody else would have to be crazy to do that. Besides writing, Colin likes to read, eat peanut butter, play tennis, and think. He lives in Colorado with his parents and two siblings who have to listen to him blabber about this new story idea or that best idea ever at all hours of the day.

Characters are vital tools for storytelling. To some of us writers, their “lives” are just as real as our own. We love our characters and strive to make them the best they possibly can be.

But characters, like the stories they inhabit, rest on one crucial thing: their beginnings. First impressions matter. A good character introduction rests on two things: When the character is introduced (plot timing) and How they are introduced (characterization).

When in the story does this character appear? You want to bring them in at the time when they will affect the immediate story the most. While it may not be possible to have a unique When moment for every character, you can still pick the right one. Major characters will likely appear early on in the story in a common place with the protagonist. In this case, you will need to make each introduction unique to show their different personalities—more on that in How. 

Most minor characters will not be introduced until your main character happens upon the right location, like meeting a clerk character at a shop where your main character goes to buy something. Minor characters are best introduced when they are most needed, not before. Otherwise they will clutter up the story and be generally useless until they impact the plot. Then there are important characters who come into a story late. For these characters, buildup is needed, and you must introduce them at a time when they impact the story the most. Because nearly everyone has read it, consider the introduction of Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. We’ve heard of Gollum before, and we expect him to come in. He does so when he really impacts the immediate story: Frodo and Sam are lost and need a guide, and Gollum acts as one for them. At the same time, Frodo and Sam are more vulnerable than they were seeing as they’ve left the Fellowship, which means that now is the perfect time for Gollum to try to take the Ring. This adds the possibility of conflict where there might not have been any before.

How is about what the character is doing when they first appear and why they are doing it. You want your introduction to show the personality and motivations of the character so that the readers get a good grasp of character depth right off the bat. Once again, this differs for every character. Minor characters don’t necessarily need reasons as to why they are doing something as long as it isn’t enormously impactful to the main character and the story as a whole. Characters that you want to keep mysterious might not have their motivations revealed right away. But if it’s your main character or important supporting cast, you’re going to need to show them being their best selves (or worst, if it’s an antagonist) the first time they appear in the story. Reveal them in a way that perfectly embodies their personality.

Take, for example, the introduction of Professor Lupin in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

          “Quiet!” said a hoarse voice suddenly. 
          Professor Lupin appeared to have woken up at last. Harry could hear movements in his corner. None of them spoke.
          There was a soft, crackling noise, and a shivering light filled the compartment. Professor Lupin appeared to be holding a handful of flames. They illuminated his tired, gray face, but his eyes looked alert and wary.
          “Stay where you are,” he said in the same hoarse voice, and he got slowly to his feet with his handful of fire held out in front of him.

Lupin goes on to drive away the dementor on the Hogwarts Express. Lupin is an important character in the rest of the series, and his introduction shows him doing what he does best: fighting the Dark Arts. Besides that it also mentions what I think is his most defining quality—that is, looking tired and gray, which we later find out is because he is a werewolf. His description embodies his personality, which gives readers a great first impression.

The How for minor character introductions differs slightly, because they don’t impact the story as much and thus don’t need to be seen at their very best. Think of how the dwarves of Thorin’s Company come in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. None of the dwarves are major characters at that point. Still, their introduction epitomizes the queer nature of their group and also affects the main character a whole lot (a good example of When, also, because their appearance at that time drives Bilbo to start his quest).

When you blend When and How, things come together for a great first impression of your awesome characters. With the right first impression, the reader will follow your characters anywhere.

Do you have some character introductions that need work? How can you maximize When and How to fix them?


  1. This is going to be so helpful for editing my novel!

  2. Lupin is a fabulous example of this principle. Well done, Colin!

  3. Character introductions are one of my most favorite things ever.
    They're so fun to write. Thanks for sharing, Colin. :)

  4. Great job on this post, Colin. The idea of a character's first impression is fabulous and one that is sticking with me. Thanks! :-)

  5. What about how villains are introduced? Do they need a different kind of introduction? And should you show how side characters connect to the main character in their first scene?

    1. Interesting questions. Villains should, I imagine, follow the same general rules of characters in that they ought to come in at a time when they most affect the story and when they are particularly embodying their villainous qualities. Beyond that, yes, they need a different kind of introduction than protagonists or neutral characters simply because they need to be evil, or at least antagonistic, at their introduction. The details get interesting because the introduction hangs on what sort of villain they are. If they are minor antagonists--say, Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter--then they ought to be introduced at a time that is inconvenient for the main character and doing something that shows exactly who they are. Not all that different from other characters, I suppose. If the villain is a major antagonist, the introductions branch even more depending on whether they are an involved character or not. If not--like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings--then they probably won't be "introduced" like a regular character. Instead, they will be mentioned by other characters. In this case you must be sure to outline exactly who they are in the dialogue or backstory or however you want to reveal them so that the reader knows why they are a major antagonist and why it matters to the other characters that they are evil. If they are an involved character (meaning that they appear at least somewhat frequently instead of being a sort of vague, dark-evil-overlord kind of thing), then the villain will need to be introduced so that they make a specific impression on the reader and on the main characters that yes, they are evil, this is what they do, and they should likely be stopped. Consider Davy Jones in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Dead Man's Chest. He is a fairly involved character. The first time we see him, he is clearly outlined as evil through his actions, his dialogue, and his overall look and tone. So major antagonists who take an involved role in the story need to be clearly outlined as evil by their actions and words. Whether the antagonist is aloof or involved, they ought to be introduced close to the beginning of the story so that things actually get moving. Without a clear antagonist, or a conflict produced by the antagonist sometime early on in the story that directly affects the main character, most books would be downright boring until some evil guy actually appeared. So introduce them early on. Of course, there are exceptions. A villain that you want to wrap in mystery doesn't need to be clearly defined as evil and actually shouldn't be definitively good or evil for a while.

      As for side characters, yes, you should show how they connect to the main character in their first scene. Otherwise, they're confusing space-fillers until such time as they affect the main character and the overall plot. Again, you could wrap them in mystery, which means you don't have to connect them to the main character for a while. Some side characters don't even need to be connected to the main character, actually--this depends on what their purpose in the story is. If they have direct contact with the main character, however, the reader should probably know why they are there.

  6. Interesting post! I've always had fun figuring out when to introduce characters through out my stories... this will give me some more to chew on while I continue to place characters!

  7. Do you think that all of these connections need to be mapped out before the writing process, or is it something that takes place during editing?

    1. Since I don't really solidly plan anything I write before I write it, I would say no, one does not need to map any connections before writing. It might be useful if you like to outline your story before you write it, I suppose. More than likely, for writers like myself, it will take place during the writing process and during editing.

    2. Thank you Colin! This was a really helpful post!