Introducing Characters

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?

Begin Writing a Story Without A Beginning

What if you have a great story idea–characters you love, settings that you can help readers live in, and a plot with plenty of twists and turns–but you have no idea how to start? Most books of writing advice emphasize the importance of the first chapter, the first paragraph, and the first sentence. All that importance can make you stress out. Or, if you’re like me, you think of the climax long before the opening scene. Or you know there are key scenes you want to include but you don’t have one to kick off the story. Don’t worry. You can begin writing a story without a beginning. Try these tips for getting around this form of writers’ block.

Write the Climax

If you can see the climax as clearly as you do one when watching a movie, then write it down. And write it as if there’s a complete story ahead of it. Don’t throw in a bunch of backstory or explanations. Write it as the payoff readers would love.

Write the Scenes You Like Best

Again, if certain scenes are crystal clear to you, write those. The first part of A Shadow on the Snow that hit paper was a scene I knew would go in the middle. I could see it so vividly and enjoyed watching it so much that I had to write it. I also had to write to stop it from replaying in my head. I’ve noticed that if I have a scene or conversation or confrontation I thoroughly enjoy but it keeps looping endlessly in my imagination, I have to write it in order for my mind to move onto something else.

Write Your Main Character’s Ordinary Day

Now before someone leaps up with an objection–yes, I can see you–yes, you in the back row, straining to contradict me–let me explain. I don’t think any story should start with your main character’s ordinary day. I’ve read too many published stories that start like that, and the beginning is always boring. But if you can’t get your story started, write out a typical day for your main character. Seeing his or her daily routine in print may give you an idea on how to find a hook for your beginning.

For Shadow, I started with my main character Rae receiving the first nasty anonymous note. The first lines of the novel are:


I stared at the sheet of copier paper in my hand as the note fluttered in a gust of January wind.

Then readers follow Rae to her job at the library, meet her friends, colleagues, and eventually family. So they learn about her ordinary day. But because of the note, Rae introduces these characters while wondering if this person or that sent it to her. Her ordinary day is no longer ordinary.

For more advice on writing beginnings, read this article from Go Teen Writers.

What are the best beginnings you’ve read?

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