Introducing characters at the beginning of a story can be tricky. If not done well, it will sink your narrative before it’s had a chance to take off.
Too Many Characters
My mystery A Shadow on the Snow has a lot of characters. My main character Rae lives in a county not only full of suspects but also crammed with relatives and friends. So as not to overwhelm readers, I introduce most of them in groups of two or three per a chapter and spread the introductions of most of the important characters over the first nine chapters.
To Describe or Not to Describe
New writers make the mistake of dumping all description of characters and a lot of their backstory into the beginning. Not only does this slow the story or grind it to a halt, it also removes almost all of the interest in the characters. Readers like to get to know characters over the course of the story.
Opposite to this problem is the one where the characters are barely described or not at all. I’ve found this practice much more common in current books In books offering writing advice, I’ve read that authors don’t need to provide descriptions of characters because readers can build an image from the characters’ actions and conversations. In the case of the main character, they also use his or her thoughts and feelings.
Maybe some readers can do that, but I can’t. I began a romantic suspense novel that opened with three male and three female characters. The author provided names and that was it. Their actions were standard cop scenarios. Because my imagination had so little to go on, the characters were either fuzzy or kept morphing. Well into the story, I received a few crumbs of description for the main characters but by that time, I didn’t care and quit reading. The characters never seemed more than names on a page. If I couldn’t see them as real people, I couldn’t relate to them.
Use Real Life as Guide
So what’s enough description but not too much when introducing characters? One way to approach it is to think about what you notice about a person when you first meet him or her. I pick up on the obvious, such as gender, skin tone, hair color and style, and build. As I speak to him or her, I noticed smaller details like eye color, facial features and idiosyncrasies of speech and mannerisms.
Now I can’t include all of that for every characters. So I distill descriptions to what I call the 1-2 punch. I select the two to three most important features of a character, especially those that will set him or her apart from other characters. Then, if I can come up with it, I try to include a punch–a vivid comparison that sums up the character’s appearance.
When I introduced Rae’s youngest brother, Micah, I sprinkled in description as Rae and their father talk to him. I first mention that he’s a first-grader. Then I mention how “his strawberry blond hair glowed peach in the light from the ceiling fixture”. The punch is the last line of the paragraph: “How could I turn down a request from someone who was as cute as a Christmas elf?”
If the character appears again, I can add finer details like mannerisms.
What do you prefer? No description, some descriptions, or detailed descriptions of characters?
I find that I really like descriptions about personality and idiosyncrasies, but sometimes I like to let my imagination fill in what they look like – not with all characters, but the main ones. Often the personality that’s described kind of forms the image of their physical features in my mind. But some descriptions, like how you describe the size of Mal, are perfect and also clue readers into their personality and make the image forming even more fun 🙂