Oct 22 2008

“How far in the book should I introduce my main character?”

Unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, I’d say the start of chapter 2 at the very latest.

  1. If the main character doesn’t show up quickly, readers will wonder what’s going on.  They will conclude very quickly that the story isn’t going anywhere.  (“Next!”)
  2. Readers typically assume that the first character introduced is the main character.  If your first chapter is narrated by Jane, you will disorient readers when you reveal that Mike is actually the main character.  The readers that really liked Jane will be the most displeased.  This is especially dangerous when the characters don’t fit into the same audience demographics.  For example, the readers that liked a story about a female, upper-class detective may not be the same readers that want to read about Mike, her hardbitten partner.
  3. When a story waits to introduce the main character, it usually suggests that the first chapter is just backstory.  For example, instead of starting with the hero in chapter 1, a fantasy story might spend a chapter with his parents to describe the hero’s family history.  Eww.  That’s typically pretty ineffective because the parents are mostly a distraction from the story: the hero and what he sets out to accomplish.  To quote another author, “if your backstory is more interesting than your current era, you’re writing the wrong story.”

19 responses so far

19 Responses to ““How far in the book should I introduce my main character?””

  1. Bretton 22 Oct 2008 at 5:21 am

    The time on your blog is off. It keeps saying I posted my comment BEFORE the comment I read. Also, this article seems to be like 4 hours ahead of the one about chapter titles.

  2. Bretton 22 Oct 2008 at 5:21 am

    You see! It did it again!

  3. Cadet Davison 22 Oct 2008 at 5:26 am

    I think it’s because of time-zone issues. B. Mac’s probably a few hours ahead of us. Or he’s playing wacky mind games on us by playing around with the schedule of his comments.

  4. t3knomanseron 22 Oct 2008 at 7:10 am

    As a reader, I agree that the main character should show up as soon as possible. If there’s backstory that’s important, give it to me later. Introduce the main character, give me a feel for the setting, and then beat me over the head with exposition if you absolutely have to.

    Now, here’s one thing worth noting though- you can introduce your main character without having the character “on screen”, so to speak. Imagine a character that’s a powerful and enigmatic recluse. We can get a good feel for what that character is like by using secondary characters (like a plucky reporter determined to get an interview).

    The important thing though is whoever you introduce in the first few pages, if not a main character must be an important character. A sidekick, the antagonist, whatever- if they’re not the central focus of the story, they must still play an important role (the reporter later discovers the enigmatic recluse is really a costumed vigilante, and now must decide what to do with that knowledge).

  5. t3knomanseron 22 Oct 2008 at 7:16 am

    Oh, also, the danger to using other characters to introduce the main character is the risk of “Bye-Bye Birdieism”. For those unfamiliar, this musical spends the first act just talking about “Conrad Birdie” (Elvis, essentially). For light musical theater, it’s an okay device (since you’re really just looking to set up your musical numbers), but for prose, it’s death. It can rapidly devolve into an “As you know, Bob,” type situation.

    So, to refine my previous comment, you can use other characters to introduce your main character BUT this has to be done through action not talking. My example of a reporter trying to score an interview (a conflict, and the resolution of that conflict allows you to introduce the main character) can involve plenty of action (what plucky reporter doesn’t resort to B&E to get a story?)

  6. B. Macon 22 Oct 2008 at 7:24 am

    It’s pretty funny that his name is Conrad Birdie. The Conrad reference might be totally coincidental, but Joseph Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness, which is a story where the narrator (Marlow) isn’t really the main character (Kurtz).

  7. B. Macon 22 Oct 2008 at 9:08 am

    If your story hasn’t introduced the main character by page 5, the story has probably gotten bogged down by its backstory. Typically, I think it’s much safer to introduce the main character almost immediately… page 2 at the latest.

    This is one of the few instances where Harry Potter set a dangerous precedent for beginning authors.

  8. Cadet Davison 22 Oct 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Yeah, I think it’s OK to hold off on introducing the main character in a story like Great Gatsby or All the King’s Men, where the main character and the narrator/POV are different characters. That sort of story usually features a minor narrator whose role is to observe and explain the downfall of a more epic character.

    If you’re writing a story where the narrator and the main character are separate characters, then it would be OK to hold off on the main character because you won’t have to switch narrators or POVs when you finally do introduce him.

  9. Luna Jamniaon 16 Jun 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Hmmmm … that’s what I just did with my next story, it’s what I tend to do as an introduction. Something happens to the main character/they’re saying goodbye or whatever as an introduction, and then it’s to the present. Except I try to make it so that even though the backstory/introduction is introducing the character it’s explaining something but it’s not more interesting than the rest of the story. Almost like a flashback?

    … I just lost myself again. :/

  10. Luna Jamniaon 16 Jun 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Well, he’s young and about to leave and his mother wants him to stay, but he doesn’t. Then he leaves. It’s more interesting than that … but then it cuts ahead in the next ‘page’ or whatever; to the present. Like … this is where he was, this is where he is now.

    ?

  11. HiddenTigeron 22 Feb 2011 at 12:45 am

    I have two of my main characters introduced in the prouloge, and the third in chapter one. Do you think that’s ok?

  12. B. Macon 22 Feb 2011 at 3:21 am

    Yeah, HT. As long as you start with at least one main character, I think you’re okay. I don’t think it’s a problem if you wait to introduce another character(s).

  13. Nicholas Caseon 22 Feb 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Okay, B.Mac, you’ve read my first chap. So Is it okay to introduce it with Haden since he’s the bad guy and technically a main character? Dunimas is introduced in chapter 2 and pretty much from his point of view (Besides Ixsas’s POVs at some points in the story.). Is it bad? If you say, ‘He comes off as a one dimensional cliche’ I have you know I’ve made a major rewrite that stays on the damage more, fight scene is more immersible (is that the right tense?), and above all has more of Haden’s thoughts and shows that he is much more experienced. It’s just that I’ve vainly posted it a couple of times.

  14. B. Macon 22 Feb 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I would not recommend leading with the villain unless he’s a recurring point-of-view character. It made sense to start Soon I Will Be Invincible with the villain because he was the POV for half of the chapters.

    In contrast, I’m not getting the impression that Haden is a main character (although he is the most important antagonist). So far, I think he’s been in one or two chapters and has been the POV once. A main character would probably be present in ~half or more. Beyond Dr. Impossible, Dr. Horrible was present in almost every scene of his movie. The POV/narrator of The Usual Suspects is (spoiler) the villain. I don’t think Haden is as prominent.

  15. Agnion 25 Sep 2012 at 9:23 pm

    In my superhero novel, though the main character is introduced in the first page ( in fact he is the first character to be introduced) he becomes masked crime fighter around the half way mark of the novel. That means he appears as superhero around the half way mark. Is that okay or is that too late?

  16. B. McKenzieon 25 Sep 2012 at 10:40 pm

    “That means he appears as superhero around the half way mark. Is that okay or is that too late?” That strikes me as unusually late–I would say that most superhero novels introduce the superheroic angle within the first third of the book. That said, I don’t think this necessarily would be a major problem if the character’s doing interesting, high-stakes, and preferably dangerous things in the first half. Depending on how you market the book, your readers are probably expecting a superhero novel and they might be disappointed if it takes too long for you to deliver that. At the very least, I’d recommend giving them something to whet their appetites.

  17. Agnion 25 Sep 2012 at 11:12 pm

    @B. Mac

    yeah he does some dangerous things. He gets involved in couple of fighting sequenes with the main villain’s team. He tries to stop them as a normal person. After that he realizes that he have to become a masked crime fighter.

  18. Geckoon 08 Mar 2013 at 9:26 pm

    *Assassin’s Creed Spoiler*
    Your second point is spot on. In any media, be it film, plays, books, or interactive media, the first character you see is usually the main one. In the video game Assassin’s Creed 3, the first character you use and are introduced to for probably the first 30 minutes of the game (a significant amount of time.) is not actually the main character. You do get attached to this NONE main character and when its revealed that he is actually the villain it becomes a major plot twist.

    This is probably one of the few examples where not introducing the main character early works, but I thought I would mention it.

  19. Dr. Vo Spaderon 09 Mar 2013 at 12:12 am

    Indeed, Gecko. That WAS a major plot twist that blew a significant portion of my mind. It was truly a five-star, 10 out of 10, 100% percent, thumbs up effort. I don’t think I can describe well enough the amount of respect that one event gave me for that game.

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