First impressions matter. They have a great impact in establishing or disguising a character’s true nature. But how much detail is enough to introduce a main character and still entice readers to flip to the next page?
Some writers and readers prefer to have a minimal bearing of the character’s appearance and surroundings, while others prefer stand-alone paragraphs dedicated to revealing such things.
Some authors leave certain details for the blurb (gender, age, location, dilemma) and others for the first chapter (the character’s relatability and attitude towards his/her dilemma) — while other authors give attention to all of the above.
Yes, writers and their characters have to earn readers’ interest, but it’s not one way fits all. It varies from writer to writer, and even genre to genre. Still, what seems to be the common denominator is providing enough detail to help your target audience feel grounded and secure in the narrative.
Introducing your MC:
1. Psychological approach: Attitude; internal drive; philosophy; emotions; interests
2. Situational approach: Action that illustrates expertise, dilemma, or essential characteristics
3. Physical approach: Physical descriptions
So! How do you like to introduce characters (or how do you like writers to introduce them)? Also, do you prefer details to be sprinkled in as the story unfolds or paragraphs focused on conveying descriptions?
Here are a few examples from realistic fiction (YA):
1. Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
- Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
- Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.
2. Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
- I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.
- I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.
3. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
- If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all–I’m not saying that–but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
4. Just Listen (Sarah Dessen)
- I taped the commercial back in April, before anything had happened, and promptly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, it had started running, and suddenly, I was everywhere.
- On the rows of screens hanging over the ellipticals at the gym. On the monitor they have at the post office that’s supposed to distract you from how long you’ve been waiting in line. And now here, on the TV in my room, as I sat at the edge of my bed, fingers clenched into my palms, trying to make myself get up and leave.
- “It’s that time of year again….”
- I stared at myself on the screen as I was five months earlier, looking for any difference, some visible proof of what had happened to me. First, though, I was struck by the sheer oddness of seeing myself without benefit of a mirror or photograph. I had never gotten used to it, even after all this time.
5. Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)
- It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.
- The school bus wheezes to my corner. The door opens and I step up. I am the first pickup of the day. The driver pulls away from the curb while I stand in the aisle. Where to sit? I’ve never been a backseat wasteease. If I sit in the middle, a stranger could sit next to me. If I sit in the front, it will make me look like a little kid, but I figure it’s the best chance I have to make eye contact with one of my friends, if any of them have decided to talk to me yet.
6. The Skin I’m In (Sharon G. Flake)
- The first time I seen her, I got a bad feeling inside. Not like I was in danger or nothing. Just like she was somebody I should stay clear of. To tell the truth, she was a freak like me. The kind of person folks can’t help but tease. That’s bad if you’re a kid like me. It’s worse for a new teacher like her.
- Miss Saunders is as different as they come. First off, she got a man’s name, Michael. Now who ever heard of a woman named that? She’s tall and fat like nobody’s business, and she’s got the smallest feet I’ve ever seen. Worse yet, she’s got a giant white stain spread halfway across her face like somebody tossed acid on it or something.
7. Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher)
- “Sir?” she repeats. “How soon do you want it to get there?”
- I rub two fingers, hard, over my left eyebrow. The throbbing has become intense. “It doesn’t matter,” I say.
- The clerk takes the package. The same shoebox that sat on my porch less than twenty-four hours ago; rewrapped in a brown paper bag, sealed with clear packing tape, exactly as I had received it. But now addressed with a new name. The next name on Hannah Baker’s list.
- “Baker’s dozen,” I mumble. Then I feel disgusted for even noticing it.
- “Excuse me?”
- I shake my head. “How much is it?”
- She places the box on a rubber pad, then punches a sequence on her keypad.
- I set my cup of gas-station coffee on the counter and glance at the screen. I pull a few bills from my wallet, dig some coins out of my pocket, and place my money on the counter.
- “I don’t think the coffee’s kicked in yet,” she says. “You’re missing a dollar.”
- I hand over the extra dollar, then rub the sleep from my eyes. The coffee’s lukewarm when I take a sip, making it harder to gulp down. But I need to wake up somehow.
- Or maybe not. Maybe it’s best to get through the day half-asleep. Maybe that’s the only way to get through today.
8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)
- It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shear’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
9. Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell)
- He’d stopped trying to bring her back.
- She only came back when she felt like it, in dreams and lies and broken-down déjà vu.
- Like, he’d be driving to work, and he’d see a girl with red hair standing on the corner — and he’d swear, for half a choking moment, that it was her.
- Then he’d see that the girl’s hair was more blonde than red.
- And that she was holding a cigarette . . . and wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt.
- Eleanor hated the Sex Pistols.
- Eleanor . . .
- Standing behind him until he turned his head.
- Lying next to him just before he woke up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough.
- Eleanor ruining everything.
- Eleanor, gone.
- He’d stopped trying to bring her back.
10. Stolen: A Letter to My Captor (Lucy Christopher)
- You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you’d wanted it for a long time. No one had ever looked at me like that before, with that kind of intensity. It unsettled me, surprised me. I guess. Those blue, blue eyes, ice blue, looking back at me as if I could warm them up. They’re pretty powerful, you know, those eyes, pretty beautiful, too.
- You blinked quickly when I looked at you, and turned away, as if you were nervous . . . as if you felt guilty for checking out some random girl in an airport. But I wasn’t random, was I? And it was a good act. I fell for it. It’s funny, but I always thought I could trust blue eyes. I thought they were safe somehow. All the good guys have baby blues. The dark eyes are for the villains . . . the Grim Reaper, the Joker, zombies. All dark.