Posted On October 16, 2015 by Print This Post

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

Due to a scheduling mishap, we’re sharing an old post by one of our favorite Visiting Professors, author and blogger Anne R. Allen. 

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? 

***

Bio: Anne R. Allen is an award-winning blogger and the author of eight comic novels including the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries, plus a collection of short fiction and poetry. She’s also co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide, with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde. She blogs at “Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris,” named by Writer’s Digest to their Best 101 Websites for Writers.

***

Sherwood_Ltd_600x900_72dpi_(2)Anne’s rom-com, Sherwood Ltd, (The Camilla Randall Mysteries Book 2) is available for 99 cents this week.

Snarky, delicious fun! The Camilla Randall mysteries are a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire. Bridget Jones meets Miss Marple.

Sherwood Ltd. takes aim at the world of small press publishing and all things British. It’s a madcap tale of intrigue, romance and murder set near the real Sherwood Forest in the English Midlands.

=========================================================================================

So Much For Buckingham med.Anne’s latest rom-com mystery, So Much for Buckingham, is now available in ebook.

It’s a comedy/mystery about character assassination, online review bullies, and Richard III. Also a cat named Buckingham.

 

 

 

 

 

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

  1. Thanks so much for inviting me to guest again for RU! And thanks for mentioning my new book and my sale book. Really fun rom-com mysteries.

    Posted by Anne R. Allen | October 16, 2015, 3:53 pm
  2. excellent reminders. Thank you!

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | October 16, 2015, 7:04 pm
  3. This made me think of Fifty Shades of Grey, which opens with the protagonist looking in a mirror and describing her looks! Terribly clichéd, and frequently mocked by reviewers.

    Posted by Sonya Heaney | October 19, 2015, 4:35 am
  4. How did I miss this post? Well, it was that kind of week. I’m glad I found it belatedly because it’s great! Thanks so much, Anne, and sorry I’m so late to the party!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 19, 2015, 10:41 am

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  1. […] dive back into the TNG world and revise/finish Book 1. Even though Anne R. Allen tells us that the Do’s and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist is only for final drafts, I think these are good tips for when you’re starting a story as […]

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