Posted On February 15, 2012 by Print This Post

Do’s and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist with Anne R. Allen

We’re excited to have author Anne R. Allen on campus today! I stumbled upon Anne’s fantastic blog last year where she addresses a broad range of topics pertinent to writers. The author of five comic mysteries, Anne will discuss the importance of introducing your protagonist. http://annerallen.blogspot.com

Introducing your main character to your reader may be the single trickiest job for a novelist. You have to introduce the reader to a character in a very short time and entice us go on a journey with her into a brand new world. If you tell us too much, we’re bored, but if you tell us too little, we’re in the dark.

Important note before you read on: these are rules for your final draft ONLY. 

When you’re first diving into a novel, you’re not introducing your characters to a reader; you’re introducing them to yourself. 

All kinds of information about your MC will come up while you’re writing your first draft. Maybe she lives in a noisy apartment building. Or her mom is a gung-ho Amway seller. Or her next door neighbor is recuperating from a terrible accident. Or she feels a deep hatred for Smurfs. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part. 

But be aware you’ll want to cut most of the information or move it to another part of the book when you edit. 

It helps to remember this formula—FIRST DRAFTS ARE FOR THE WRITER; FINAL DRAFTS ARE FOR THE READER. 

Even if you’re not going the agent/publisher route, you need to keep your reader in mind. Self-publishers are judged, too, and reviewers and readers can be snarkier than any agent. 

Here are some dos and don’ts that should help in the revision process.


1. DON’T start with a Robinson Crusoe opening
. That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character: 

   – driving alone in a car

  –  sitting on an airplane

  –  waking up and getting ready for the day

  –  out on her morning jog

  –  looking in the mirror

Especially looking in the mirror. It’s not wrong, but it’s a seriously overdone cliché.

2. DO open with the protagonist in a scene with other characters—showing how he interacts with the world. Two or three is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.

3. DON’T give a lot of physical description, especially of the police report variety. All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t need to know eye color/height/weight. Give a general impression in a few broad strokes and the reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.

4. DO give us a few strong physical markers that indicate personality. Unusual characteristics like curvy hips or striking hair or an unusual way of dressing will tell us something about who a character is and make her memorable. But if all you say is she has green eyes and curly red hair—you’ve only told us she’s identical to the MCs of 90% of all YA romance novels, according to one agent. We don’t need to know the hair/eye thing unless the characteristic is important to the story—like Anne of Green Gables hating her hair and dying it green.

5. DON’T present your MC as a flawless Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is the author’s idealized fantasy self—an ordinary person who always saves the day and is inexplicably the object of everyone’s affection. A Mary Sue will make your whole story phony, because a too-perfect character isn’t believable (and is seriously annoying.)

 
6. DO give your MC strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene. We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: If the character is furious because her roommate keeps watching that DVD of the Smurfs—even if you’ve never heard of a Smurf, you’ll identify with the anger because everybody’s had their buttons pushed by somebody’s repetitive or insensitive behavior.

7. DON’T start with a POV character about to be killed or otherwise eliminated from the storyline. (Ditto DREAMS, or putting the MC in a play or videogame.) If you get us intrigued and then say “never mind”, the reader will feel her time and sympathy have been wasted.

8. DO introduce the MC as close to page one as possible. Don’t waste time on weather reports or long descriptions of setting. (That doesn’t mean you have to neglect setting, but make sure you’re doing something emotional and original with it.) 

Remember that modern readers want to jump into the story and get emotionally involved. Also, a modern reader doesn’t need the kind of long descriptions of far-off lands that Victorians loved.  Even if we’ve never been there, we all know whatLondon, or theAlps, or rain forests look like because we’ve seen them in films and on TV. 

9. DON’T start with a prologue. 

Sigh. I know a lot of you love them. But here are some reasons why prologues aren’t such a great idea. 

People skip them.  

The reader has to start the story twice. Just as she’s getting into the story, she’s hurled to another time or place, often with a    whole new set of characters. This is annoying. Annoy a reader at your peril. 

When an agent or editor asks for the first chapter—or you have a preview of the book on Amazon—you’ve got a major dilemma.  Do you send the actual chapter one—where the plot starts—or that poetic prologue?  

Agents hate them:  

I know you’re all wailing. But try removing the prologue. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on? 

A prologue is like a first draft—usually it’s for the writer, not the reader. It isn’t the overture: it’s the tuning-up. Like a character sketch, a prologue usually belongs in your book journal—not the finished project. 

Go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building, but try to cut it in your final revision.

10. DO put the MC in a place and time right away.  If the MC is thinking or talking to someone—where is she? As I said, we don’t want a long description of the scenery or the weather, but let us know what planet we’re on.

11. DON’T start with dialogue. Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say. It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and the hooker from 12B—you’re all ears.

12. DO dribble in your MC’s backstory in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks—AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.

13. DON’T plunge into action before introducing the characters. The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care.

Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear your neighbor got hit by a car, you want to know when, where, how badly she’s injured, etc. 

14. DO give your MC a goal. All characters need goals in each scene. But the protagonist needs a compelling, over-arching goal for the whole book. She can’t be easily satisfied. She must need something very badly. A novel needs to be about one big thing, and the character has to have one big goal. Too many goals? You may have a series. That’s good, too. 

***

Have you ever wondered how much information to include when introducing your protagonist? Do you write your first draft with the reader in mind or just to get the story down? 

***

Please join us on Friday, February 17th when we present Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens. 

***

THE BEST REVENGE is a screwball rom-com mystery that debuted with Popcorn Press in December 2011. (Available in paper or ebook.)  It’s a prequel to Anne R. Allen’s previous Camilla Randall mysteries.

When Camilla, a 1980s New York debutante, is assaulted by her mother’s fiancé, smeared in the newspapers by a sexy muckraking journalist, then loses all her money in the Savings and Loan Scandal, she seeks refuge with her gay best friend in California. But her friend has developed heterosexual tendencies and an inconvenient girlfriend, so Camilla has to move in with wild-partying friends. To make things a whole lot worse, a famously debauched TV star ends up dead after one of their parties, and Camilla is arrested for his murder. In order to clear her name and find the real killer, she must turn to a friendly sanitation worker, a dotty octogenarian neighbor and the muckraking journalist who ridiculed her—who also happens to be her boss. 

 

Bio: Anne R. Allen is the author of five comic mysteries that debuted in 2011 with two publishers: Popcorn Press and Mark Williams international Digital Publishing.FOOD OF LOVE (September 2011) THE GATSBY GAME (October 2011) GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY (October 2011) SHERWOOD, LTD (December 2011) and THE BEST REVENGE (December 2011) She is also working on a self-help guide for writers with PAY IT FORWARD author Catherine Ryan Hyde. Anne blogs about all things writerly at http://annerallen.blogspot.com, with blog partner, NYT bestselling author, Ruth Harris.

Similar Posts:

Share Button

Characterization

Discussion

45 Responses to “Do’s and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist with Anne R. Allen”

  1. Anne, thanks for joining us at RU! In the early drafts of my first book, I probably broke half of your rules. LOL Great list – will keep it handy.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | February 15, 2012, 5:42 am
    • So glad to be here. I would have stopped in earlier, but it’s been an insane day and I just got to my computer. (Who knew it would take three hours to get my hair highlighted? 😉

      I’ve broken them all, too. I learned by trial and error–lots of error.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:05 pm
  2. Great post Anne! I once read a book that opened with a character who was killed at the end of he paragraph and I felt betrayed and never finished the book.

    Good advice!

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | February 15, 2012, 5:45 am
  3. Hi Anne,

    My current WIP my MC is looking in the mirror. OOPS. In my book under contract I realized I didn’t describe my heroine at all. This article was much needed advice.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 15, 2012, 6:52 am
  4. Morning Anne!

    Yeah, I’ve broken those rules too. lol…I think we all have at one time or another. The trick is to make sure we fix them BEFORE we send the book out! My absolute worst is starting with dialogue. I LOVE starting with a bit of dialogue. But I’m doing better now…..=)

    Thanks for the great post!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 15, 2012, 8:17 am
    • I get lots of arguments from people who love to start with dialogue, and I know how you feel. I used to love to do it, too. That’s because a book often starts in my head with people talking. But then I read a novel that started with unknown people jabbering, and I realized how annoying it was.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:12 pm
  5. I’m with Carrie in that I love starting with dialogue :-). In fact, I may have to check my current WIP for that – LOL.

    Anne – this is a great editing check-up list for every writer. I’m curious, how many of these do you “break” in the first draft and have to clean up in subsequent drafts?

    Thanks so much for being at RU!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | February 15, 2012, 9:00 am
    • As I said to Tracy, I’ve learned by trial and error. I’ve done every single one of these things in one draft or another. And I didn’t necessarily believe my editors when they told me this stuff didn’t work. But eventually I came around.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:13 pm
  6. Anne – Thanks so much for stressing that these rules apply to a final draft only. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to make the first drafts perfect (and, of course, they were far from it).

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | February 15, 2012, 9:40 am
    • Becke–That’s my #1 problem as a writer: perfectionism. It kept me trying to “perfect” a flawed novel for nearly a decade instead of moving on to something else. I must have written the first chapter 100 times. But the problem was with the premise. That can’t be fixed with editing, alas.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:16 pm
  7. I loved this! Thank you so much for posting, actually needed this today. I have a problem starting my MC either in the middle of dialogue, or alone. Perfect timing for me!!!

    Posted by CL Parks | February 15, 2012, 10:13 am
    • CL–I’m so glad this got to you at the right moment. Sometimes we get a certain scene cemented in our minds and it’s a real wrench to let it go (Like my looking-in-the-mirror scene in The Best Revenge I mentioned above.)

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:18 pm
  8. Great post! Lots of valuable info here. (Although I did a prologue in my last book – opened with a hot love scene – and it was great! Then the soldier left for Iraq. I think it worked and my editor loved it! I hope readers will, too.)

    And I skim over paragraphs of description. Not interested.

    Posted by Wendy S. Marcus | February 15, 2012, 10:26 am
    • Some people skip prologues and some people love them. But having hot sex in it sounds like a great way to keep them from skipping!:-)

      For newbies submitting to agents, though, it might be better to call your prologue “chapter 1” or they might not give it a look. Agents get really snarky about prologues.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:22 pm
  9. Great post! I love how you say you’re introducing the character to yourself, not to the reader, in the first draft. That’s so true in my current WIP first draft. I’m learning more about my characters all the time. I already know, too, how I’m going to change the first chapter all around when I come to revise/rewrite.

    Posted by Paula | February 15, 2012, 10:39 am
  10. But it’s SO much fun to start with a mirror!! I mean who doesnt stand in front of the mirror contemplating life every morning? 🙂

    I love lists. Thanks for putting this one together for us.

    Sonali

    Posted by Sonali Dev | February 15, 2012, 12:49 pm
  11. Lots of good advice. to paraphrase, First draft for me; final draft for everyone else. Like that.

    Also know why I feel disconcerted when a story (or movie) starts with a whole bunch of action before I know who it’s about. Say hello before you blow something up, have a terrible date or kill someone.

    Posted by PatriciaW | February 15, 2012, 12:56 pm
    • Patricia– “Say hello before you blow something up, have a terrible date or kill someone.” What a great rule for all writers.

      Especially screenwriters. I don’t know how many TV shows and films I’ve turned off after 10 minutes of two unidentified people chasing each other. Bo-ring, people!

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:30 pm
  12. Hi Anne!

    Do you feel it’s necessary to include the protag’s GMC, both internal and external in the first few pages?

    My next question is outside the scope of the discussion…but is it necessary to for the hero and heroine to meet in the first chapter? I’ve heard it both ways.

    My stories have a lot of characters. Although I felt I made it clear to the reader why secondary characters appeared in the first few pages, I’ve been nailed in the past for doing so. Any tips on how to avoid confusion when there’s more than one character in the opening scene?

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 15, 2012, 3:27 pm
  13. Jennifer, I’m not getting what GMC means. I’m sure I should, but I’m drawing a blank. But generally, I don’t think we need to know as much about a protag in the first pages as new writers think. We need emotion. And something to make the character interesting. A lot of other stuff can come later.

    Meeting in the first chapter is a convention in Romance and some lines still require it, I think, but rules are made to be broken. I love having Mr. Right be a face in the crowd or somebody we dismiss as unimportant until he comes back later.

    Too many characters in an opener confuses readers. This is tough on a mystery writer like me, because we want to introduce all the possible suspects. You have to compromise. Go ahead and write the scene, then see who you can eliminate, or just call “the blond busboy” or whatever until he’s important enough to be named.

    Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 5:39 pm
    • GMC=Goal, motivation and conflict.

      I’ve had contest judges ask what’s keeping a character from achieving their goal? Well, geez, it’s kind of hard to explain all of that in the first few pages. But if you look at some contest score sheets, they have a checklist…did the entry have clearly stated goals, conflict and motivation.

      Maybe my issue is with the checklist. It seems wrong to pile it in the first chapter because why would a reader need to read chapter two?

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 15, 2012, 5:50 pm
      • Got it now, Jennifer–contest rules. I’m not a big fan of cookie-cutter rules. One thing does need to be constant: Every character needs a goal in every scene. For there to be a story, somebody’s goal needs to be thwarted. But not necessarily the protag’s. A protag needs a goal for the entire book as well as each scene, but we don’t need to know it immediately. Scarlett O’Hara is interested in having an 18 inch waist at the beginning of GWTW. Survival of her way of life isn’t on the table. But a lot of people have been willing to read on before they find that’s going to be the real goal/conflict.

        Does that help?

        Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 15, 2012, 6:05 pm
  14. Hi Anne. Thank you for a great post! Such wonderful advice.

    I always write an ugly draft for myself. I figure I need to get something on paper before I can fix it. 🙂

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | February 15, 2012, 7:22 pm
  15. Anne,

    Thanks again for joining us today. I hope you’ll consider coming back again!

    Thanks everyone for dropping by!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 15, 2012, 9:01 pm
  16. Small shameless plug here: there will be lots of info like this in the book I’ve written with Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde. “How to be a Writer in the E-age…and keep your e-sanity.” It will launch with Mark Williams International Digital Publishing in June 2012.

    Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 16, 2012, 11:08 am
  17. Plug away! Thanks again for joining us!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 16, 2012, 4:51 pm
  18. Ah, the prologue. People seem to be varied among that topic. I’m going to write up a draft so I can do a post on my own blog in the future.

    Say, what’s your opinion on exposition? Personally, a good amount of telling is okay for establishing stuff, but it becomes a problem when the author’s dumping a lot of information at once.

    Posted by Chihuahua0 | February 17, 2012, 4:17 pm
    • I have a list of quotes from agents on prologues that are caustic enough to keep you from every thinking about writing one. But sometimes they are useful. Just make sure it’s not just a lazy way to dump a bunch of backstory.

      As far as exposition–as little as possible is the rule. Use broad brushstrokes and save details for later. You don’t need to establish anywhere near as much as you think. Dribble in backstory during the action as needed. All that info dumping is first draft stuff–for you, not the reader.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 18, 2012, 4:07 pm
  19. Great post! I’ll keep this advice in mind when I’m revising (AGAIN). I think the first line of Watching was, “If I’m right, these few entries will be the last in my diary. I probably won’t open this notebook again, or keep a diary of a mediocre day at school. If I do, then I was wrong. But I don’t think I am, because I haven’t been so far.”

    And I STILL don’t like this as a first paragraph. It doesn’t really tell us anything, except that she’s a young person (she’s at school), and she’s worried about something happening :/

    I don’t have a prologue, but I kind of have a half page introduction thing which I’m not sure if I’m going to keep. I also have a verse or two from a song on the page that says PART ONE, since it seemed perfect to describe one of the characters. I guess you could say that was his introduction?

    Posted by Miriam Joy | February 18, 2012, 4:23 pm
    • Miriam–It sounds as if you’re still in the “for the writer” stage. I call it “first draft” but sometimes there can be ten or more, when you’re still exploring. That’s a good thing. It means the final product will be a more in-depth kind of writing.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | February 24, 2012, 6:54 pm
  20. Thank you for this. I just needed a little boost with my outlining and some reassurance to abandon all ideas of a prologue–those scenes can go elsewhere.
    Saved, Favorited, Subscribed!

    Posted by Jennie Alice Lillard | October 25, 2012, 12:45 pm
  21. Thank you for this great article! Setting up the story with intrigue and empathy is so important, something a lot of writers forget when they get swept up in the excitement of putting pen to paper. Here is an article I wrote called “Introducing a Character, Not a Bore” that I thought you might enjoy: http://catehogan.com/introducing_your_character/

    Posted by Cate Hogan | February 10, 2016, 9:42 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] — Anne R. Allen, quote from Do’s and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist […]

  2. […] Do’s and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist | Romance University […]

  3. […] 63. All kinds of information about your MC will come up while you’re writing your first draft. Maybe she lives in a noisy apartment building. Or her mom is a gung-ho Amway seller. Or her next door neighbor is recuperating from a terrible accident. Or she feels a deep hatred for Smurfs. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. Anne R. Allen, Do’s and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist […]

Post a comment

Upcoming Posts

Subscribe

2013-2016

100-BEST-WEBSITES-2015

2014-2015

Follow Us