How to Introduce Your Characters
by Jason Black
Readers are quick to decide whether they like, loathe, admire, or pity a new character. Those first impressions are vital because the success of a story often rides on whether a reader’s perception matches what the author intended.
There are several effective techniques for conveying the impressions you want, and few stories use them as clearly as does the first Star Wars movie. Don’t worry that it’s a film. The techniques work equally well in print.
Use vivid imagery
A vivid set of visuals can quickly establish a character’s general disposition. Consider Darth Vader. Even without his theme music, we know he’s a serious bad guy from the first moment he steps into the smoke-filled corridor of Princess Leia’s spacecraft. The imagery is not at all subtle: Vader’s imposing physical stature, jet black outfit, and billowing cape all speak of power.
Show other characters’ reactions
Vader is also a great example of how other people’s reactions further illuminate the character. When Vader appears, the stormtroopers snap to attention along the corridor’s walls. They make room for him to pass, while rebel soldiers avert their eyes. Even from nameless extras, those reactions tell us everything we need to know about Vader. He’s in control of the situation and no one is about to defy him.
Reactions also inform readers about the characters giving them. Who’s the one person not intimidated by Darth Vader? Princess Leia. One of her early moments is when she confronts Vader during the capture of her ship. Everyone around her is terrified of Vader. He holds all the cards in that situation. She has nothing to defend herself with but her chutzpa. She doesn’t back down, and look at how indomitable it makes her appear.
Show your characters in action
Actions speak louder than words, right? There isn’t much Leia can do while her ship is being interdicted, but look at how her actions under duress color our understanding of her: she hides the Death Star plans in R2-D2 and sends them into the escape pod. She duels it out with the stormtroopers trying to capture her until they tag her with a stun gun. She makes it obvious that she doesn’t give up easily.
Show your characters making hard choices
Choices are the clearest window into a character’s soul, especially when the character has to make difficult choices. Again, Leia shines. Admiral Tarkin gives her a no-win choice: give up the location of the rebel base or see her home planet destroyed. We see the difficulty of the choice through her visceral, bodily reactions. She’s heartbroken to betray the rebellion, but she can’t let a whole planet be obliterated either. It’s an impossible choice, but she makes a choice anyway and we see the pain of it in the down-turn of her face, the slump of her shoulders. Her choice to make a huge sacrifice to save a planet portrays her as a deeply sympathetic character.
Show them in conflict
Conflict is a wonderful way to bring a character’s deeper motivations up to the surface. Almost any conflict will do. One of Luke Skywalker’s first scenes is a minor conflict between him and his Uncle Owen, after his uncle has bought the two droids. Having made their purchases, Uncle Owen tells Luke to get the new droids cleaned up. Luke replies with the immortal whine, “But I was going into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters.”
It’s a small conflict, but Luke loses. He whines, but he obeys his uncle, showing us that Luke is a powerless figure with little control over his life. The way he behaves in this conflict—and in his acerbic, sarcastic manner with C-3PO afterwards—further shows us his dissatisfaction with his life.
Show them using key skills and abilities
We meet Obi-Wan Kenobi as he’s saving Luke from the Tusken Raiders. Obi-Wan breezes into the canyon, his brown robes swaying, and the raiders all run scared. Young, strong, able-bodied Luke was no match for the raiders, but Obi-Wan frightens them off without breaking a sweat. We have no trouble understanding that this creaky old guy has some kind of mystic power going on, and can immediately see that he’s well suited to being Luke’s mentor figure.
Make use of setting
Where we meet characters says a lot about them too. We meet Luke way out in the outback of the outback. He could scarcely be in a less influential setting. This fits, because for him Star Wars is a fish-out-of-water story. He is a nobody who lands right in the middle of very important, high stakes events.
Drop hints about backstory
Do not use the opportunity of meeting a new character as an excuse to tell us their life’s story. Use it as an opportunity to raise compelling questions which you can then explore as the story moves on. Curiosity is an incredibly powerful force. It will push readers onward, seeking answers to the questions raised by careful backstory hints.
Darth Vader’s physical form hints at significant backstory. What’s behind the mask? How did he get that way? Obi-Wan’s choice of neighborhood does too. Why would a powerful mystic hide out in a nowhere desert? Luke lives with his aunt and uncle, who aren’t just his employers but his guardians. What happened to his parents? The answer to that particular question took 20 years and five more movies to fully explore—and made George Lucas billions of dollars.
Put it all together
The best introduction in the movie is for Han Solo, who employs all of these strategies together. We meet him in a vivid setting, the sleaziest dive bar in the galaxy, which instantly sets him up as an unsavory rogue. The imagery of him and Chewie sitting in a secluded alcove in the back of the cantina, rather than bellying up to the bar, underscores that he doesn’t want to be seen. Han immediately comes into conflict with a green-skinned bounty hunter. This is a backstory hint, making us wonder why he has a price on his head. The conflict culminates in a choice and an action, as Han shoots his way out of the confrontation. In doing so, he demonstrates key skills. Han caps the whole thing off with his reaction to that conflict: he flips the bartender a coin and says “sorry about the mess,” while clearly showing he’s not sorry at all.
The ultimate job of a character introduction
Above all, show us what’s most important about the character. Readers will judge quickly, but they’ll do it on the basis of what you show them. So choose wisely, and concentrate on conveying the one thing you most want readers to believe about the character. And make it something good, because the instant readers decide there’s nothing about a character to interest them, they’ll lose interest in the story itself.
Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com