Every book has to introduce its characters, but are you describing them in a way that increases the experience for the reader? Here’s my advice on writing engaging introductions!
They are staples of any book: introductions of (the appearance of) the character in whose head the reader is placed, as well the secondary characters, including the possible love interest. If handled clunkily, introductions are a pet-peeve of mine and I tend to skip over them, like a lot of readers do, I assume. What constitutes chunky writing? Usually an overabundance of “telling” instead of “showing.” Let me give you two examples:
“Anna was tall and very good looking. She had long blonde hair and big blue eyes that drew everyone to her, be they male or female. Anna caught even more glances in the nightclub tonight, because she had slipped on her shortest mini skirt and her highest heels. It felt very good. Even her friend Amber, who was as straight as they came, looked her up and down when she walked up to her.”
“Anna strode across the nightclub’s tiled floor with the grace of someone well-versed in the subtle art of wearing ten inch heels. She caught the gazes of onlookers, but only for a moment—just long enough to let the thrill of attention flow through her and provide a high much more subtle than any liquor could provide. That wasn’t to say she wasn’t planning on getting drunk as well.
Amber awaited her at a table. She took in the sight as Anna walked up, seemingly as affected as everyone else.
‘I thought you didn’t go for women?’ Anna couldn’t help put a little seduction into her voice as she pressed close. Yes, they were best friends, but who wouldn’t make out with six foot two of ebony skinned beauty if given half a chance?
‘I don’t.’ Amber pushed a screwdriver across the table. ‘Then again, you are wearing the least amount of clothing I’ve ever seen you in, except for maybe that one time at Karen’s we agreed never to mention again.’ She ran her index finger along the rim of her own liquor-filled glass.
Anna bit back a smirk. ‘Those were good times.’ Amber was a damn flirt and she was falling for it too! ‘Please, do explain what’s wrong with a mini skirt and crop top?’ Her drink was heavy on the alcohol, which Anna didn’t mind tonight. She took another sip and let the fire blaze down her throat.
‘Oh, is that what that is? I thought you’d put on a belt and forgot the skirt that came with it.’ Amber ducked aside when Anna tried to shove her.
‘I’m blonde Am, but not that blonde.’”
“If handled clunkily, introductions
are a pet-peeve of mine and I tend
to skip over them.”
Which one of the two examples do you prefer? Because I like to pat myself on the back for putting words to digital paper, I’m going to assume you’d rather read the latter example. The biggest difference between the two is that the first tells you about Anna while the second allows you to be Anna. No, we never find out what color her eyes are and that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, but do we really need to be told that?
Introductions of the physical attributes of the characters are a necessary evil of the writing gig; they have to be in there or the reader is left floundering. If they are put into a storyline as an infodump like in the first example, they can throw the reader out of the flow of the writing. They will be forced to pay attention to every word in a sentence because the information is new and important, thus slowing down the speed and rhythm of the read. This often leads to skimming the description. If the information is intercut with everyday actions any reader can visualize without effort, the information goes down more easily. For writers, doing it this way also has another benefit: more useful words for your manuscript!
Infodump: [info] [ info] [info] [info] [info] etc., until the story is resumed
Descriptive storytelling: [info] [info] [familiar] [familiar] [info] [familiar] [info] etc.
“Introductions of the physical
attributes of the characters are
a necessary evil of the writing gig;
they have to be in there or the reader
is left floundering.“
As writers, we often have a very clear physical description of the character in our heads. We know every proverbial freckle and wart on their body, we can picture their smile, the frizz in their hair when there’s too much moisture in the air, we know about the scar on their knee from when they took that fall off their bike when they were seven, and so on. Let me be blunt: the reader doesn’t give a damn. The reader wants a good story about this character, but what they look like is of probably tertiary importance, maybe even further down the list. They want to know just enough about your character to make them come alive in their heads.
Your job as a writer is to take all the attributes of the character you created and filter out only the bits you need to tell the story. Maybe it matters that Anna is blonde, maybe her short skirt ends up being the catalyst for events about to unfold. Those details need to make it into the final manuscript. Her eye color, the shape of her body, and the colors, patterns, and fabrics of her clothes may be something you have painstakingly put together to form a coherent picture, but the audience doesn’t need to know these things in order to enjoy the book.
Whenever you add a bit of description to your manuscript, ask yourself the following questions: do readers need to know this? If I think they do, why? Does it add to the story, and if so, how? If you don’t have a satisfactory answer to any of these, consider if the story would be lacking anything without it? Always keep in mind that the readers is a smart human being, perfectly capable of filling in blanks. If you don’t give your main character (or even their love interest) a hair color, readers will give them one, either their own or one they like.
“Always keep in mind that
the readers is a smart human being,
perfectly capable of filling in blanks.”
That brings me to my final point: if you’re sparingly introducing titbits of information about your characters, or introducing them later in the book than the first few pages, be careful not to point them out too often afterward.
Readers base the appearance of a character on the first few paragraphs in which a character is introduced. If certain details are not introduced then, consider not introducing them later either, or just once. Why? Because the odds are not in your favor that the reader came up with the exact same details you did. If that’s the case, reading over and over how a character has red hair after she’s ended up a blonde in their head can throw a reader out of the story just as much as an infodump, and for the same reason: they have to pause to take in information—information they’ll most likely resist taking in because their beloved character is a blonde, dammit.
There is nothing easy about writing character descriptions, but if you stick to these guidelines, you’ll have an easier time with it:
- Know your characters inside and out
- Filter out what the reader really needs to know
- Work the filtered information into the storyline in a natural way, intercut with actions
- Show, don’t tell
- Dialogue is a great vehicle for personal information about characters
- If you can’t work something in naturally, leave it out
- If you left something out in their introduction, consider not mentioning it later on