Ever read an article about how important those first few pages are to your novel? Of course you have. Because everyone, and his dog, and his dogs fleas, will tell you that the beginning of your novel is the selling point. If it doesn’t hook you in those first few pages then the book will be put back down on the shelf from whence it came. [You can also check out my previous post on beginnings here].
So you know what? I am not going to harp on about the importance of making those first few pages count. What I am going to do is talk about another aspect of beginnings. And that is introducing your characters, well to be more precise your main character. This can be particularly tricky, especially in a story told in the 1st person. We don’t often spend large portions of our day pondering our physical appearance, and if we do perhaps we should go see a doctor.
Finding the balance between supplying a four paragrah physical and emotional description of your character, and obviously as a consequence utterly boring your readers half to death, or supplying so little information that the reader is left at guessing whether the main character is even a male or female is a very delicate line indeed.
Let me use as an example, the book the whole world is talking about today – ‘The Hunger Games’. This story is 1st person POV. In the second line of the book we find out the main characters (MCs) sister is called Prim. On the first page we know that the MC lives with their mother and Prim and a cat named Buttercup. We even get a detailed description of the cat but so far we know very little about our MC.
By the third page the fact that we don’t yet know the MCs name is starting to rest a little too heavily on our minds. Then, finally, on page 5 we find out that the MCs name is Katniss. Unusual name, but we are in a dystopian world so unusual is par for the course. But the question is ‘Is Katniss a boy or a girl’?
There was one small hint, on page 3 we find out the MC has a ‘long dark braid’ but they also wear trousers and leather boots, confusion still reigns. It is page 8 (3% into the book) before we have confirmed that Katniss is, in fact, a girl. And we begin to create a mental image of this character that we can insert into the scenes.
Rereading The Hunger Games now I am able to picture Katniss in each of the scenes in those first 8 pages. Because in retrospect after reading all three of the books and watching the preview for the movie at least a thousand times I know what Katniss looks like. Of course, it also seems crazy that anyone would not know that Katniss is a girl. But of course, as writers we need to assume that the reader that is picking up our book knows nothing about our characters, or their setting or their motivation. We need to provide them with this information. And we need to do it without flooding them with boring decsriptions and backstory.
Don’t forget that just because you know everything there is to know about your characters, doesn’t mean your readers do. Give them enough information in those first few pages to get them by, let them know the name of your MC and of course if they are a male or a female. Give them a few identifying features so that everytime that character is mentioned those features come to mind – they can be their hair colour, eye colour, an unusual facial feature, a scar, a tattoo, something that helps them to identify that character in their mind.
When you are editing your novel, put yourselves in the readers shoes. Go back to the beginning and reread those first few pages. Is it obvious from your descriptions who your main character is and what their motivations are? Do you perhaps need to cut back bit on the detail and give the reader’s imagination a bit more room to play? To steal a phrase from Chuck Wendig’s post on setting this week (a highly recommended read btw) ‘establish that shit early, then reveal gradually’.
Did you experience these same difficulties when you read The Hunger Games? Are there any books that come to mind where the author does the MC introductions particularly well or particularly poorly? As always I love to hear from you.