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Introducing Characters To Your Story

Introducing Characters To Your Story

The heart of storytelling is in the characters. You’ve done the work thinking them up and giving them interesting and compelling inner lives. The next thing to do is to get these characters from your head, into the heads of your readers. In fiction, as in real life, first impressions are important, so the way you introduce characters can make a difference in making sure your reader carries on past chapter one. In this article, I’ll go through how to introduce characters in a story, provide examples of strong character introductions, and give you my best tips for introducing characters effectively.

Character Introduction Examples And Tips

The purpose of a character introduction is to get the reader interested in the character and invested enough that they will want to carry on reading. If you can introduce a character in a vivid and memorable way, they will appear in the reader’s mind fully formed and ready to go. So, how exactly do you achieve that? 

Give Your Characters One Or Two Memorable Features

What is the first thing you want people to notice about the character? Is it the way they’re wearing a kaftan and wellington boots? Is it the shrewdness of their expression? Whatever it is, describe it and let your readers build up their own picture of the character from there. It can be tempting to describe your character’s physical appearance in detail. Resist the urge!  

All you have to do is provide the reader with some touch points and they will fill in the gaps (often with details that you wouldn’t even have thought about). If there is something unusual about the character’s physical appearance – or something that will become important later, do mention that. 

Below is one of my favourite character descriptions. We can picture the whole of Grandma, just from that description. It’s also worth noting that the choice of words is completely in keeping with the sort of thing a boy George’s age would say.

“George couldn’t help disliking Grandma. She was a selfish grumpy old woman. She had pale brown teeth and a small puckered up mouth like a dog’s bottom.”

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl 

Describe Your Characters By The Clothes They Wear

Clothes can tell you a lot about a person. At the very least, they can give you an impression of the type of person they are. Look at the description below. By the end of the paragraph, we have a clear mental image of the type of person Shoba is, even if we have no description of her actual features. 

“‘It’s good of them to warn us,’ Shoba conceded after reading the notice aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar’s. She let the strap of her satchel, plump with files, slip from her shoulders and left it in the hallway as she walked into the kitchen. She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble.”

The Interpreter of Maladies by Jumpa Lahiri 

Introduce Your Characters By Their Voice And Demeanour

If you’re writing in first person or in ‘deep third’ (where you’re deep into the thoughts of your third person narrator) it can be hard to describe the character. People don’t often go around thinking about the colour of their eyes or the bounce of their curls. However, you can tell the reader what kind of person they are by the way they describe their surroundings. Show rather than tell.  

A happy person and a sad person would look at the same scene and focus on different things. An acerbic character would describe things differently to a mild and gentle one. 

You’re trying to give the reader an idea of the character rather than a picture perfect description. So introducing characters in a story by highlighting their characteristics can be really effective.

In the extract below, although we have no idea what’s going on (and neither does Tom, really), we get a good idea of Tom’s state of mind. Also, that he’s done something that might lead to his arrest. It takes a while for the reader to understand what’s going on with Tom Ripley, but even on the first page, we get the idea that there’s something dangerous and a little reckless about him. 

“Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out. 

At the corner, Tom leaned forward and trotted across fifth avenue. There was Roaul’s. Should he take a chance and go in for another drink? Tempt fate and all that? Or should he beat it over to Park Avenue and try losing him in a few dark doorways? He went into Raoul’s.”

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith 

Introduce Characters Through Action

This is my favourite way to describe people – by the things they do. This is very common in film scripts. Probably the best example of this is Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope. He walks in, and surveys the dead with an attitude of annoyance. He then goes on to choke someone. By the time he speaks, we already know that he’s the villain and that he’s very powerful. 

Introduce Characters Through Dialogue

If your character has a distinctive voice, you can give the reader an idea of who they are just by having them speak. In the example below, the narrator (and the reader) gets an image of Holly Golightly before he even sees her. Notice also, how Capote introduces movement into the scene by the sound of her voice changing as she comes up the stairs. 

“The voice that came back, welling up from the bottom of the stairs, was silly-young and self-amused. ‘Oh, darling, I am sorry. I lost the goddamn key.'”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote 

And then a few sentences later:  

“‘Oh, don’t be angry,  you dear little man: I won’t do it again. And if you promise not to be angry…’ – her voice was coming nearer, she was climbing the stairs – ‘I might let you take those pictures we mentioned.’”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote 

Introduce Them Through Another Character

You can use other character’s impressions to introduce your character. Make their reputation precede them. For example, before we meet Sherlock Holmes for the first time, we hear Stamford describe him and his habits to Dr Watson. 

“Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wine glass. ‘You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.’

‘Why, what is there against him?’ 

‘Oh, I didn’t say there was anything against him. He is a little queer in his ideas – an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know, he is a decent fellow enough.'”

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle 

Stamford goes on to describe various aspects of Sherlock Holmes, so that when we finally meet the man, we feel we already know him.  

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Introducing First Person Characters

Introducing characters written in first person deserves a separate section because it’s hard to describe them without falling into the ‘I looked in the mirror’ cliche. Here are a few methods you could use, apart from the ones described above.  

  • Let them introduce themselves directly to the reader. This may seem a little old fashioned now but it is effective. 
  • Have the narrator introduce themselves to another character. The risk of ‘info dumping’ is high with this one. Try and make sure that you have them say just enough to convey the information that is essential. 
  • Introduce the character alongside another, and describe them by contrasting them. This is a good way to bring their physical descriptions in. For example: ‘unlike my diminutive and dainty sister, I was tall and had wide shoulders. No one had ever called me dainty’; that sort of thing. 

Introducing Characters: General Tips

As a general rule, the more detail you give about a character, the more important the reader expects them to be. Your main character needs a name, an age and some description (however vague). From there on, the amount of detail you give should be proportional to the character’s importance to the story. If you’re introducing a character who is going to reappear later, you can give them a name. For someone who appears once and has no real effect on the story – like a cashier who serves the character – just call them ‘the cashier’ and move on. There’s no need to linger and give details.  

Introduce your protagonist early. This not only gets the story going right from the start, but it also tells your reader who they’re supposed to be rooting for. Other major characters can come in later, but your main character should show up in chapter one. If you’re writing romance, you need both the hero and heroine to show up within the first two chapters of the story. 

When you’re in the earliest parts of the story, your reader is still new to the world, so make things easy for them. Make it clear who is speaking, either by having people call them by name or by using a simple ‘John said’.  

Giving a little bit of backstory for your character is fine, but avoid trying to tell them everything right at the start. This is known as ‘info dumping’. You will know a lot about your characters. Think of all that knowledge as an iceberg.  You only need to tell the reader the bits that are relevant and visible. If you can hint at the stuff that’s submerged, then that’s great. If it’s hard to do that, then exercise restraint. You can always trickle the information in later on the story, adding layers to your character. The introduction is only the first glimpse of your character. The reader has a whole book in which to get to know them better; and if you’ve introduced your characters in a compelling way, the reader will stay the course. 



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