Apr 25 2010

How to Introduce an Interesting Character

1. Please establish the voice and personality early. One possibility is having the character and/or narrator make an unusual observation about something important to the story or giving some unusual personality trait about the character. For example, “It was a pleasure to burn” (Fahrenheit 451) or “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter” (Huckleberry Finn).

2. Another option is having the character start with an action that is typical to him, but NOT typical to most other protagonists. This is why opening a book with the character waking up is usually ineffective. It rarely launches into the unique/interesting aspects of the character and the story quickly enough. You didn’t write a story about this character to show him waking up, so just skip to the part that we WILL care about.

3. Many (most?) stories start with a character in a comfortable/safe but not particularly glorious situation. (Luke Skywalker, farmer-in-training. Bruce Wayne, happy son. Guy Montag, data management specialist). If the inciting event of your story is an event or action that forces the character out of his comfort zone, then it helps to establish the traits that will be most important to understanding how the inciting event will force him to change. For example, Bruce lives a carefree, sheltered childhood and has it ripped away from him by the senseless murder of his parents. That’s probably all we need to know about his childhood. What do you need to establish about the character and his situation before the inciting event? Ideally, the less, the better. The material before the inciting event is more like an investment than a payout.

4. Showing that the character is relatable early on can help, but don’t let that be an excuse to do a bland/forgettable setting. Schools are particularly vulnerable to this (geeks/dorks getting abused by jocks/bullies, kids struggling to fit in with the cool crowd/cheerleaders, etc). Establish right away how your world is different than similar ones. For example, Ender’s Game is partially about a kid trying to fit in at a new school, but since the kids are competing to be the ones to lead humanity’s war against an alien race, usual struggles (like gaining the respect of the old hands) tend to play out in very fresh ways.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “How to Introduce an Interesting Character”

  1. Tomon 26 Apr 2010 at 8:01 am

    I think I’ve found a clever new variation on the whole high school nerds/jocks thing, based on what my friends tell me really happens at their school.
    They told me that at their school there’s a group of about 10 or so students who form the ‘Oxbridge crew’. They are all going to either Oxford or Cambridge (which as you probably know are two of the best universities in the world) when they leave school and are ridiculously smart. They’re also really… not nice people, according to my friends, and they act all superior to them all the time.

    This gave me a fantastic idea, nerds as bullies and ‘cool kids’ as victims. I imagine a school where the intellectuals are mean-spirited bastards and the kids who just want to survive school are tormented for their lack of abilities in tests. It’s essentially the same trope that’s been used by everyone, but the roles have been reversed.

  2. B. Macon 26 Apr 2010 at 9:13 am

    Of all the things they could use to form a clique, “which school are you going to attend?” is probably one of the wackier ones I’ve heard of. My high school probably had 25 people going on to Ivy League schools and maybe another 50 doing other first-tier schools, but I don’t think it ever occurred to them (us?) that it was a major part of their high school identity. I related much more to people with shared interests. (And, no, I don’t consider choice of college to be an interest 😉 ).

  3. Wingson 26 Apr 2010 at 9:26 am

    I think I’ve actually seen Tom’s idea before, but it was only in one place and I can’t remember where. Either way, I like it.

    The original draft of HTSTW was unfortunately filled with the high school cliches mentioned above, from the dumb jock to the bullied kids. Today, partially because of the new setting (The dawn of superheroism as opposed to “reality”), such things are pretty much nonexistent, with the exception of Heather’s character and the brief mention of Connor being bullied at school.

    …I could “write what I know” and make it similar to my school, but as at my school, history teachers go off on tangents about shoes, a friend of mine randomly sings Frank Sinatra songs at intervals, some of us hold a strong belief that Excalibur is at the bottom of the turtle pond (It’s deeper than it looks, I swear!), even more of us believe that my lunchbox is possessed by demons, and the meaning of life is discussed over lunch. We’re not exactly “normal”.

    – Wings

  4. B. Macon 26 Apr 2010 at 10:59 am

    Wings: “I think I’ve actually seen Tom’s idea before.” Todai? It comes up in manga/anime from time to time… In Japan, it’s an extremely prestigious school with an extraordinarily brutal entrance exam process.

    A bit closer to home, I’ve heard some stories about the placement process for graduates of the service academies. The very top cadets get to be jet pilots, then the next best guys become bomber pilots, then tanker pilots, then maybe an OSI agent here or there, and by the end of the class you’re down to guys handling nukes in the Dakotas. You know we’re screwed when the guys handling USAF’s end of the nuclear arsenal are the guys that didn’t place high enough to make it as press officers. 😉 (Well, I assume that public affairs officers aren’t actually commissioned, but you get the idea).

  5. Tomon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:10 am

    I suppose it’s not much about the university they’re going to as it is general ‘intelligence’, and I put that in inverted commas because of course when I say it I mean average test scores, which, of course, is not a measure of intelligence. But it may be enough to form a clique around, which is the general basis of my idea. It probably won’t come up much and I might relegate it to a throwaway gag, but it’ll still be enough for at least a good chuckle, like in the Buffy comic I read recently in which a group of spiritualists in the Far East were being harassed by violent Buddhists. It was a nice throwaway gag even if they didn’t expand on it.

  6. B. Macon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:18 am

    Oh, okay. So like a Mensa clique. That sounds interesting. And by interesting I mean like “fun to read about but nowhere any sane person would want to go.” Like Marvel’s New York City.

  7. Herojockon 17 Jun 2010 at 4:16 am

    The Geek v Jock is so boring and in real life there are Geek v Geek rivarly as well as Jock v Jock. I’m friends of a Cheerleader at Uni now and the politics within Cheerleading makes the politics I study look nice 😛

    My superhero attends an elite hi-tech University. Think MIT but taken to the extreme and set in London. It’s fifty years from now. At University the Astrology society have taken a keen interest in him, suspecting his the Superhero. They set genius traps, stalk and some even terrorize him to uncover his identity. They are his mortal civilian enemies lol

    The Hero’s best friend has a goal to become the Student Union President and together they try and bridge alliances or pit societies against each other. I’m thinking of having various University societies fight each other. Don’t mess with the Robot society!

    The Student Union Press is at war with the University and this where the Hero’s other best friend comes in. Her paranoia, curiosity and belief in aliens leads her to getting involved in this conflict. Rumours and conspiracies fly that the University was founded by 12 illuminati like members. Dun dun dun.

  8. B. Macon 17 Jun 2010 at 9:47 am

    I like the idea of geek vs. geek and jock vs. jock much more than geek vs. jock.

    However, one type of geek vs. geek that strikes me as cliche and not particularly promising is superscientist vs. superscientist, like Reed Richards vs. Dr. Doom (among many others). One thing I like about Ironman’s take on that cliche is that while the protagonist and many of his villains are brilliant scientists, pretty much none of them are stereotypically geeky. Also, in Kickass, both the titular protagonist and Crimson Mist are comic book addicts, and their ineptitude creates a lot of humor.

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