Why, hello! 3 Tips for Compelling Character Introductions

Let me take you for a moment to Pirates of the Caribbean. With me? Picturing the tropical beaches? Tasting the rum? Good!

Who doesn’t remember the first entrance of Captain Jack Sparrow? In fabulous pirate regalia he sails into port in the crow’s nest of what looks to be an equally fabulous pirate ship… until the camera pans out. By the time he approaches the pier he’s bailing out the tiny ship with a bucket, but manages to step from the top of the mast onto dry land with his usual panache. In that one scene, we learn so much about him, from the fall in his fortunes to the stylish moves he still manages to pull during this particular slump.

Memorable character introductions can cause us to fall in love with characters–they make them memorable and hook us to their fates. This week in revisions I’ve been looking at a new way to introduce one of mine, and as usual, here’s the research! Links, as always, at the bottom.

Use The Force

Jason Black has a mammoth article on this–it’s a tribute to the quality of his advice that my attention didn’t wander once! He dissects the character introductions in Star Wars (Episode IV, of course) to show us just how much is achieves. His number one piece of advice is to make sure the introduction tells us what’s important about that person. The ways he suggests we can achieve this include (but are not limited to!):

Action (making a choice) – Watching Leia make an impossible choice conveys to us her importance, her leadership and her morality.
Conflict – Does the character have power? What’s important to them? Losing (as Luke does at first) can be as important as winning.
Setting – Where is the character when we meet? Why? What does that place show us about them?

Jason’s advice is great–act fast, make sure readers form the right impressions of your characters up front, and get them hooked! I really can’t do him justice in such a short summary, but I encourage you to check his post out.

Spread The Word!

Reflect for a moment upon Pride and Prejudice. Remember the way the Bennett family chatter and flutter over Mr. Bingley before he ever appears in person? They speculate upon his wealth, his manner, his marital status and his future parties. Before he ever uttered a word, Mr. Bingley was firmly fixed in our minds.

Brian Hodge provides fabulous advice in this regard–I can’t possibly capture all of it here, so I recommend you click through and read! He discusses the value of building a reputation for a character before they appear in the story. He suggests letting other characters talk and reflect upon the character you’d like to have an impact, and provides a list of approaches, including:

Rumours about this character
Reactions to the character’s name
Warnings about this character
Advice on how to interact with the character

He provides a fantastic case study of Hannibal Lecter, going through all the ways in which the movie Silence of the Lambs works to build his reputation before he appears on screen. I was trembling just reading it! Jason Black also discusses this in his article in relation to Darth Vader.

But Who Are You?

Anne R. Allen provides a great list of things to consider when introducing your main character in particular. I recommend reading them all, but one of my favourites is that you need to establish who your character is before you throw them into headlong action. Provide us with some strong emotion we can identify with. Show us the way the protagonist interacts with the world–don’t leave him alone to brush his teeth, or her alone to drive to work.

What’s your favourite character entrance? Got any tips to add?

Introducing Characters Three Ways

Jason Black at Plot to Punctuation asks what Star Wars can teach us about character introductions.

Brian Hodge at Storytellers Unplugged says a character’s reputation should precede him (or her).

Anne R. Allen gives us 12 dos and don’ts for introducing your protagonist.

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21 Comments

  1. Once again, I think you must know exactly where I am with my WIP and link accordingly!! I am rewriting the beginning, and am working on my character introductions… and I’ve been worrying about it! Off to check out the links!

    • These are great tips. In my manuscript I start it off with a character having a bad day in his everyday job. He’s working in the service area of fast food and things aren’t going particularly well with a customer who’s less than pleased with his service to say the least. Giving the character that conflict right away also helps me establish who that character is at the onset of the story.

  2. serena says:

    hey there great post found it very useful and your introduction pointing out that in just one scene we can learn all the basics about some one. I have tried to do somethig similar by useing a prelude to my wip.
    Thought id pop by follow and thank you for visiting I see you see and following. Hope that you are having a good week so far.

  3. A Lockwood says:

    Great Links! I’m really loving your blog.

  4. Jessica says:

    Ahhh, Captain Jack Sparrow! Possibly my favorite role by Johnny Depp (and it’s tough to choose). Thanks for these tips–I love the Bennett sisters example of setting up expectations for a character before he even shows up. Poor (sweet, innocent,slightly dull-witted) Mr. Bingly…poor Mr. Bennett, now that I think about it :)

  5. Such great advice to keep on hand in my research files. I love all kinds of new information that can help me make my characters better. Thanks for a great post.

  6. Thanks for the links! Definitely checking them out! Great post, great points, and nothing will pull me in as fast as any Johnny Depp picture. ESPECIALLY the lovable Jack Sparrow!

  7. You’re so right about that opening scene in Pirates. Thanks for the tips and links!

  8. This is great! Ah Jack, now that was a memorable character entrance wasn’t it?! One of my favorites is Riddick in Pitch Black. At first you just hear him talking about how everything but the animal side of the brain shuts down in crio, which is why he’s awake. Loved it! To this day he’s my favorite character!

  9. Lynda Young says:

    These are great examples and they make a great point. I’d not thought of how we introduce our characters is just as important as the characters themselves.

  10. jeff king says:

    Great advice, and awesome links… I love stopping by your blog, it never fails to help me somehow.

  11. Great post on an important subject I don’t see addressed enough. I’m so pleased you quoted my piece. Thanks!

  12. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by TK Richardson, Amie Kaufman. Amie Kaufman said: 3 Tips for Compelling Character Introductions (feat. Jack Sparrow, Hannibal Lecter, Luke Skywalker and Mr. Bingley!) http://bit.ly/f77u9m [...]

  13. You always compile THE MOST HELPFUL stuff. Love it– thanks!

  14. Lois says:

    Great post. I’m going to have to check out the originals. Thanks.

  15. Paul Joseph says:

    Great resources! A lot of excellent things to conisder. Thanks so much for sharing, Amie.

  16. Alexa says:

    Oh thank you for all these lovely links, just perfect for me at the moment too.

  17. Great post – thanks for this :)

  18. Jenny B. says:

    Such a good reminder. I’m looking forward to paying more attention to how authors introduce their characters.

  19. Beth says:

    This is another great set of links. The first and second in particular really intrigued me. I love the idea of “spreading rumours” about my protagonist before he or she ever appears. What a compelling way to make the reader curious!

  20. [...] Compelling Character Introductions [...]

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