Sunday, January 26, 2014

First Impressions, Right Impressions: 5 Tips for Introducing a New Character

Perhaps he or she was a God-send. Or perhaps you spent hours and hours lovingly crafting him or her. Regardless of how your character came into being, you are proud to call them yours. You’ve given them a smashing backstory, an original personality, and a unique gimmick or two. Now all that remains is to drop them into the middle of your story in the best way possible.

Placing your character into your story can sometimes be more daunting than it sounds. After all, you want your perfect character to be inserted into your tale at just the perfect time and in just the perfect way.

While the methods and advice for introducing new characters can be as varied as the characters themselves, there are a few specific tips that may help get your newcomers off on the right foot… and on the right page.

1. First Impressions are Important
It’s true what they say about first impressions—they last longest in the brain. In fact, a recent psychological study by Wilson J. & Wilson S. revealed that students who experienced a negative first day of class had lower expectations of that class (even though the class improved shortly afterward for the duration of the semester). As a result, their motivational levels and final exam scores were consistently lower than those of students who experienced a positive first day of class.

So what does this have to do with introducing a new character in your story? Well, keep in mind that the first impression that you give your reader will likely be the one that lingers longest in his or her mind—the one that they will use to “label” the character, so to speak (for example—“this character is bitter,” “this character is a kind-hearted mentor,” “this character is rebellious and creative,” etc.). Of course, you don’t want your character to be a stereotype or overly simplistic, but giving readers some “labels” for your character can help them simplify the character’s identity in the story. From these more simplistic labels, readers can follow the character’s network of feelings, beliefs, relationships, and other complexities.

Science tells us that it only takes a few seconds to form a first impression of a person. Convert these “few seconds” to a “few sentences” when applying this to your writing. Make the first three sentences about your new character really count. Pack as much quality into them as you can—details about the character’s personality, appearance, or “labels.” Apply this rule to the first three individual lines your character says as well. Let your character speak and your reader will form an impression from what they say.

To get an idea of the importance of the first three lines, choose a character from any media (books, movies, video games, etc.) and examine their first triad of dialogue. What impression does this give you of the character? Here are a few characters, along with their first three lines:
Matthias from Brian Jacques’ Redwall:

  1. “Er, sorry, Father Abbot. I tripped, y’see. Trod on my Abbot, Father Habit. Oh dear, I mean…”
  2. "Oh, Father Abbot… If only I could be like Martin the Warrior. He was the bravest, most courageous mouse that ever lived!”
  3. "Yes, thank you, Father… Say the word and I’m your mouse, sir.”

Balthier from Final Fantasy XII:

  1. “Quite a performance!”
  2. “I play the leading man, who else?”
  3. [In retort to another thief’s claim that the treasure belongs to him] “And when I take it from you… it’ll be mine.”

Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:

  1. “Morning, Monsieur. I just finished the most wonderful story, about a beanstalk and an ogre and—“
  2. “Good morning.  I've come to return the book I borrowed.”
  3. “Oh, I couldn't put it down!  Have you got anything new?”

A character’s first few lines are important, but be sure to complement them with appropriate body language, descriptors, and context, in order to achieve the full effect.

2. Accurate Impression VS Skewed Impression
You can use the impact of the first impression to high advantage. Rather than looking at your character’s “first impression” as a means to accurately depict the character, see it as a means to depict the character as you want your readers to perceive him or her. This can be advantageous if, for example, you have a plot twist forthcoming, in which the reader discovers the character isn’t who they claim to be. To make a recent media reference, the movie Frozen uses “false first impression” to great effect. The viewers are led to believe that a certain character is something that he/she isn’t due to their first impressions of this character.

Also, keep in mind that if your story is being told through the viewpoint of a specific character, a lot of first impression encounters will be channeled directly through your POV character’s perspective. Because of this, your character may be led to conclude a very inaccurate first impression of a new character, and you will need to rely on actions and details to reveal this new character for who he or she really is. For example, your POV character may meet another character—let’s say, a lawyer—for the first time and get an immediate first impression that this character is selfish, rich, deceptive, and untrustworthy; these conclusions are the result of your POV character’s personal experiences with lawyers in the past. This POV character’s first impressions will channel to the reader, even if the first impression itself is inaccurate, due to your POV character’s bias.

These situations can be tricky, especially if you wish to show a different impression of a new character than the POV character is getting. In these situations, it is best to introduce the new character via a more unbiased POV, or show very clearly through actions that what your POV character is thinking contrasts with what your new character is really like.

3. Pick an In-Character Scene
If your character is a goof-ball, put them in a scene that allows them to be goofy. If your character is caring or heroic, introduce them in the middle of a burning building, helping other people escape the disaster. Sometimes subtly is needed if, for example, your character is really a dubious villain but you wish to portray them as a benefactor of society. Regardless, the same rule still applies. Put that character in a scene that shows them as you want them to be perceived; reveal their true nature later on.

We’ve already discussed the importance of first impressions. Don’t accidentally give your readers the wrong impression of your character by introducing them in an environment that will cause them to act out-of-character. Don’t introduce a happy-go-lucky character when they’re in a once-in-a-blue-moon gloomy mood because their dog died. Even if you spend the remainder of your novel showing what an optimist this character is, that initial gloomy impression will cast doubt on your readers, and likely just confuse them.

If you are worried that your character’s introduction might happen in a manner that puts their “first impression” at risk, think of ways to negate any incorrect assumptions.

For example, in one of my novels, I introduce a main character—Jakk—by having him battle with one of my novel’s antagonists. I wanted both characters to be portrayed as skilled swordsmen without having one back down to the other. This was difficult to do, especially since this was Jakk’s first appearance and the readers had no past reference to compare his skill to. To remediate this, I put a brief scene before the dual, in which Jakk battles with a pack of vicious creatures and overcomes them skillfully. This gave him some credibility as a skilled swordsman in the reader’s eyes. In order to end the fight between Jakk and the antagonist without having one combatant “win,” I used a dangerous, atmospheric circumstance to cause both opponents to abandon the fight. In addition to this, Jakk’s mount is injured in the battle, and he chooses to leave in order to protect it from further harm. In this manner, Jakk’s credibility as a swordsman is preserved, the power of the antagonist is not lessened by having him “lose” in the battle, and Jakk’s character is ultimately revealed in showing that he cares more for the safety of his mount than a petty victory over a foe.

4. Don’t Let Descriptions Carry You Away
If you’ve spent a lot of time working out exactly what your character looks like, it can be tempting to try and dump all of that detail on your readers. Resist this temptation and reveal only what you must—the most important, physical aspects of your character. Your readers don’t need to know that your character has “mostly brown hair that’s parted on the left side and has white and black streaks
running three fourths of the way down the bangs, which arch back towards the scalp like blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…”

Nobody wants to read all of that. In fact, if you over-describe, your readers may lose interest, and that might cause a bad first impression on your new character in-and-of-itself.

Pick one or two significant characteristics of your new character and describe them in the first few sentences. Author Bryan Davis does an excellent job with this, in that he leaves character description to a minimum and allows the reader to fill in the gaps. When introducing the character, Walter, for example, Davis describes him as wearing a food-stained ball-cap and having a crooked nose. He allows his readers to detail the rest of the character—Walter—as their imaginations like best. He relies on the character’s personality and actions to paint the rest of the imagery.

5. Sit, Observe, Write
Put the “first impression” principle into practice. Find a bench in a public park, in a mall, at a local McDonalds, or anywhere you like, really. Observe the people around you. Bring a notepad and pen and jot down some things as you observe:
  • What initial “first impressions” do you get about each individual you see?
  • What is this individual wearing? How does this affect your impression of him/her?
  • How would you describe this person in one sentence?
  • What does this individual’s body language tell you about him or her? Do they seem nervous, irritated, content, indifferent, etc.?
  • How does this person speak? What is the first thing you hear them say? How does this affect your impression of them?
  • How does the atmosphere or setting affect your impression of this individual?
You can use this same exercise when viewing or reading fiction as well. Next time you see a new movie, read a new book, or play a video game for the first time, observe the characters and your first impressions of each of them. Pay specific attention to the main characters, as they have the most significance.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! :D Lots of good advice. ^ ^ I'm definitely a people watcher lol.

    Stori Tori's Blog