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.
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.
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.
- The Essence of Story by Steven James
- Character Questions: How To Dig Deep by Lynne Marshall
- The Slow Blog Manifesto and 8 Reasons for New Authors to Slow Blog by Anne R. Allen
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for February 13-17, 2012
- Anne R. Allen presents Who Are the Big Six? What Does “Indie” Really Mean?