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Character introductions (1 Viewer)

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
Tis a slow day today (I only have to work for 12 hours today) so lets talk about the basics of CHARACTER INTRODUCTION

Rules to this thread: You can't chime in unless you bring a written example of how you do it. In other words: Put up or shut up.
Showing a sample of how you like to introduce characters is your ticket into the discussion.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
Okay, I'll go first.
I have always been a big fan of the way that Tom Clancy and John Grisham introduce their characters. Both are (were) highly skilled writers, yet they preferred a classic style of introducing thair next characters: They just talked about them for a page or two.

Seems simple, but there is a lot to it. Mainly: WHAT do you talk about for that page or two?
Most often when I see someone muff up a classic intro, it is because they mentioned a lotta stuff that didn't make any difference...like a complete description of their attire.
Everyone wears pants...so don;t mention them unless they specifically speak to the unique nature of that character.
Example: Don is one of those poser-humps who likes to wear a formal blazer with blue jeans. That would make it worth mentioning his clothes because it tells you that he is one of those guys...

When I write a classic intro, I try to focus on the things that best illustrate the character. What makes them different.
So to earn my way into this thread, here is a character intro I used a few years back:

-----------------------------------------------

Ernie Simms was a slight man. Never very fast, or very smart, he found his success by working harder and longer than the smarter, faster competition. He compensated in other ways as well. To make up for brains, he learned to double and triple check everything. Then he invented better processes to make him faster. And to that end he kept the shelves stocked and the cashiers online. As a store manager he had been slow at the start, but in time he found ways to compensate where he was weak. He knew his limits and rarely strayed from the course.

So it was all the more odd to find himself being led through the bowels of a secret bunker complex by a madman wearing a massive handgun. That was the only way he could explain Alex. Who in the hell spends millions building something like this on the odd chance that the world will end? Who does that? Then there was that gun again; stainless steel with those ornate grips, the hammer already cocked back like he was ready to shoot someone any second now. Add some camo pants and a black T-shirt, and top it off with a bat-belt full of accessories, and the image was complete.

It occurred to Ernie that he was being led to his death since Alex had not told him exactly how being a grocer fit into his post-apocalyptic master plan. The only comfort was that the cop was with them. Alex had grabbed them both after the lunch meeting was over and led them into the hallway that connected the entire complex along a central axis. Once there Alex stood beside the keypad and said one word to Ernie:

“Watch.”

Punching in the six-digit number he looked back to Ernie for confirmation that he had seen the code. “You get that?”
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Yeah I try to capture something of them. Here, I do it from the POV of the POV char, when we meet a new character. I paint the new char in the colours and filters of the MC's view:

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Here, the language I use should suggest someone a little fussy, clean, polite. Agreeable, in his own words.

Another example:
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Here, I make the character part of the scene, almost incidental to it, to give me a bit of an anonymous wide angle view before coming in. And I have personified the parts of them (cautious mouth hole) to start giving them a personality. And I have tried to infect them with a mood by using the environment.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
From a children’s story of mine:

Nobody in the Mapleton third grade elementary had ever heard Sabine speak. Nobody knew if she could. When her teacher asked her a question, Sabine would just look down at her desk. If her teacher asked the question a little louder, Sabine would silently shake her head and pull her long brown hair in front of one side of her face. The teachers and staff at Mapleton Elementary spent lots of time with Sabine, testing her math skills and asking her to write, but when Sabine started writing it was as if she was writing in a strange alphabet that looked like flowers and vines that nobody knew. The other children laughed at her at recess and sometimes pulled her hair or pinched her to see if she would make a sound. But Sabine would run like the wind across the school playground and sit alone under a sprawling maple tree. The children sometimes taunted in loud mocking voices that she must be too stupid to answer questions, but Sabine wasn’t stupid. At least Sabine didn’t believe that that was her problem. Sabine thought the problem might be because children usually learn to speak from their parents. Sabine had no parents, at least that she knew of. There was a bitter old man who owned the house that Sabine slept in. (I say ”slept in” because that’s all Sabine did in it.)

Sabine called him “The old man” in her mind because she didn’t know who he was. He didn’t talk to her much except to yell at her. Sabine wondered if he was her family and had always been her family, but somehow couldn’t imagine it. But then, Sabine couldn’t remember anything past a few weeks earlier. It was as if she’d been born at age 9 with no memories. She’d just woken up in the attic bedroom in the little house and the old man had been rustling around downstairs. She came down the stairs and tried to speak to him and realized she had no words in her head, nor sounds in her throat. He had yelled at her to speak and then had yelled at her to get away from him and that was her first morning of life, it seemed.
 
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Llyralen

Senior Member
I'm feeling indulgent enough to post a second:


Soldis helped the women string the fish like beads onto a rope and put ash on all the fishes eyes so that they could not tell other free fish where they had been taken to. Soldis wondered at herself for this. Somehow she knew Father Paul Tordvelsson would not like it and yet putting ash on the fish eyes had seemed like a reverent thing to do. She must remember to ask Kolgrim about it later. Maybe he could help her make sense of it as he had with many other matters.

This time the Skraellings had brought one of the big seal with them. Soldis watched as the women and a few men carefully butchered the bright red meat and threw pieces to their snarling line of dogs. A seal flipper was given to two like-size children who took it into their teeth and played tug-of-war with it, laughing when one of them was pulled over and then playing again.

Soldis thought she would never get used to watching them eat. They would bite down on the portion of raw meat and then cut the meat off right in front of their lips. The tallest and likely oldest of the men offered her a piece of seal the size of her footprint. “Try it, Soldis,” Kolgrim said and stood to hand her a knife. She sat on the furthest rock out next to a woman nursing her small child. She caught the shy amused smiles of the Skraelings as she tried to eat this new way. Soldis would admit there was some skill to it and hoped to not cut her nose or lips in the process of learning. She wasn’t even sure she liked the raw seal meat, but she was hungry and willing to like it and unwilling to be rude or break up the gentle peace of the people around her.

The men and Kolgrim seemed to have started a conversation about her. Soldis was silent for a minute trying to see if she could pick up any Skraeling words that she knew. She heard Kolgrim say her name twice more, so she cleared her throat and said, “I don’t know all of their names” to Kolgrim.

Kolgrim chuckled, “They are asking about the meaning of your name. They think “sun woman or sun goddess” fits you with your hair, but they wonder that we aren’t worried about powerful evil shamans being jealous since you are so young for such a grand name.“ Soldis smiled. Kolgrim had a way of making everyone’s thoughts sound both reasonable and ridiculous. “Also, they want to know where your husband is.”

Soldis knew that Kolgrim liked to embarrass her, but she trusted that she would like the way Kolgrim embarrassed her. Kolgrim never took anything farther than was humorous yet comfortable and interesting to all. “Well, what are you telling them? That I’m only 14?”

“No. They would say you should have been married by now. I told them that your husband is hunting walrus up in the bay.”

Soldis blushed and the Skraelings stared for a second, then looked away. Soldis had to concentrate on chewing seal flesh so as not to choke. She swallowed, “I’m not married and that’s not at all certain.” Soldis took comfort in knowing that Kolgrim knew what she meant.

“Oh, I think it is. I think that the Skraelings would think it is not too different from how they arrange things,” Kolgrim shot Soldis one of his brilliant smiles. She hadn’t even talked about this before with Kolgrim, not with anyone. Soldis thought how very blue his eyes looked in the summer night before Kolgrim turned to his guests and spoke Skraeling so that they weren’t too impolite. Soldis thought Kolgrim’s eyes looked almost as blue as Terje’s in that moment, and his hair almost as deeply red as the sun dipped to it's lowest point in June, skimming the ocean.

Terje. Was it as Kolgrim was saying? Had everyone known before she herself had known about the tensing and joy in her body upon hearing his name? When would Terje be home from the hunt? How could she stand even a few more days let alone months? Terje would come across the field as he had in other years with salmon for her family, to recount the success and dangerous moments of the hunt, to show her the ivory tusks he would carve. He would ask questions about her new dress, taste the new cheeses her mother made, tolerate hearing Soldis gush about every tiny triumph of her falcons, and appraise the ribbon she was carding for his cap with gratitude. For the first time in her life, Soldis wished she were alone to hide her heated face and wonder again if Terje was thinking and feeling as she was.
 
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JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
I don't believe in directly telling the reader about the character. It's a perfectly workable thing for some, maybe, but I never could get the nuts and bolts of it worked out so it came across other than an infodump.

In lieu of infodumping players on their arrival I'll do a couple of things. I brought five cards for this hand, plus one in my hatband you can't see. Onward!

The iodine stung as it touched. Short a twitching of the eyelid the boy showed no sign of the pinch. The cut was not long, maybe an inch, angling down from the forehead towards the left eye. For now it still showed a fresh and angry red, but before summer’s end the parted skin would knit, the scar fade and register only as a brief interruption in the brow. The last souvenir.

Describe the situation to put the character in context. I've gone into considerable detail elsewhere on this particular opening, but the ideal takeaway was that there was a fight and this guy lost - so what now?

The rider slid from his perch. He hung a flat-crowned straw hat on saddle horn and unstrung a length of patterned cotton from about his neck and damped it from the puddle, and as he tied it loose in place wondered how long he might linger before the others missed him, here under hessian-net shade of oak and pecan, arched like the ceiling of a mad hermit’s own private cathedral and knit close as though each grasped the sacredness of the life-giving trickle beneath and so laced leaf and branch in mutual defense of the dots and dashes of the still and standing pools.

His name was John, and he did not care for this new parcel, had not liked it in the two weeks spent in slogging misery here.

Name and setting, if not circumstance. You don't know much about the character yet, at least beyond his name and the fact he's been here a while. What you do get is a little piece of how he regards the world.

Three o’clock on a dead street. In silence the face of his wristwatch flashed, caught what little light filtered into the cab, and as an afterthought he slipped the band and placed it on the dashboard alongside a half-carton of buckshot. Cooling, the engine waited in settling, ticking impatience for his decision.

Pretty much all circumstance. There's going to be violence, and probably soon, and he's going to be instrumental in whatever happens in the next few minutes. His introduction hints at drama we haven't seen yet, and if we don't know anything about him now we can presume to learn before it's said and done.

Making a living in the general proximity of cattle isn't the kind of work where a man encounters a whole lot of great truth.

By and large I think this comes working with dumb animals and exhaustion; anybody who spends the better part of an hour trying to herd half a ton of stupid into a trailer where it doesn't want to go usually won’t have much left to ponder life's big mysteries, nor does he care. If he emerges victorious he's more worried about outsmarting the next couple of head. If not, most of his energy goes towards tracing the bad decisions that brought him to this point and whether or not it's worth forgoing one of his vices so he can buy an extra lottery ticket and maybe luck his way out.

Which leads us to Sunday and the chance for some gainful employment.

Humor, then the problem. This one's odd because a first-person POV calls for different rules than the usual 3rd limited. Sort of a backdoor way of info-dumping, and one the few times I'd use character background and experience so close to the start.

They gave him a green buck private named Lopez to carry the radio.

Nineteen, maybe twenty, olive-skinned with a crooked grin that had vanished sometime during the night and the gangly quality of kids the world over who thought they had life by the balls until life demonstrated catastrophically otherwise. He trailed the warrant now, fidgeting with the extra weight of the radio and a slung rifle trying inexorably to slide from his shoulder. Both helmet and flak vest hung oversized on his skinny frame. Like a kid wearing clothes from his father’s closet.

And afraid. Deathly afraid. The warrant could smell it rolling off of him and read it in the nervous jerking movements of the eyes as they followed a distant pair of dustoff ships banking against a neighboring hill. Morning light flashed in gray-gold relief from canopy glass as the birds made their turn.

Weird setup. The reader is looking at a secondary character through the eyes of the protagonist, and between the general voice and the unflattering description we immediately establish that said protag (the warrant officer) has been around somewhat more than his new charge. There's a certain salty demeanor at play here, but also a weariness either at the hassle of breaking in new people or recognizing something of himself in the kid.

***

Anyway.

I'll generally lead with description/situation/problem, usually pivoting heavily around voice.

Realistically, a reader who's gone to the trouble of picking up your book has several hundred pages to get to know the characters. It's not imperative that they know their history, personality, and appearance right off. Rather better to lead with this is a person you should follow because reasons.

Think of how you meet people. You're both sitting at a bar watching a game, for instance, and one of you makes an offhand comment that starts a conversation. Unless there's something outlandish or garish about their dress you probably don't notice. You don't think about their height or build or their sparkling-whatever-eyes, because you're not sitting next to a list of attributes with a backstory - you're sitting next to Frankie, who's a funny bastard from Delaware who talks with an odd inflection on the letter S. And you aren't going to learn about Frankie because he hands over a resume and spills his life story - you're going to learn about Frankie when you meet up a couple of days later and shoot a few games of pool. You'll learn about him through jokes and reactions and occasional anecdotes and the way he acts when his ex-wife comes in the bar with her new husband.

Introduction doesn't mean knowing. Introduction means getting a character on stage.

Sometimes it's as simple as taking a stool by the bar.
 
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indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
I prefer the 'in media res' approach - and don't do a core dump about the character right off. There's no need to describe the character in detail, just sketch them and let the reader's imagination fill in the blanks. Start with what's important about the character - and appearance is rarely a priority, mindset is much more important.
For the MMC of Inception, I first need to let the reader know that he's a lonely engineer afflicted with neurogenic stuttering:
It was Saturday, and Mike Collins was out for a morning run. His design engineering job at Forthright Concepts didn’t give him many opportunities to exercise during the week, so he made sure to run five miles each day over the weekends. He was on his way home from Stulsaft Park, running along Marshall Street in Redwood City on the western edge of the San Francisco Bay.

The morning air was crisp and the heady scent of the bay thickened the air as he jogged past the San Mateo County Jail. Local business owners frequently filed petitions to have the prison moved, but the county commissioners routinely turned them down. The proprietors were concerned about the convicts released downtown that frequently camped on the sidewalks and begged for drug money. They never bothered him, so he hadn’t attended the meetings. It wasn’t as if he could speak out anyway, his neurogenic stuttering made talking to individuals difficult and with groups impossible. It was easier to remain silent or use American Sign Language to communicate.


Later I describe the character as tall, black hair, pale skin, and dark eyes. The reader can fill in the blanks as they please.

Two other characters are his cat, and a ghostly entity (an AI actually) that lives within the internet:
Whispers in the neighboring room disturbed his sleep. He was curious, but with his warm custodian lying beside him, he was too comfortable to investigate. He purred; life with the human was pleasant; his cat food was tasty and sometimes the man gave him tuna; he liked tuna very much.

The sound came again. Was it a human voice? Maybe, but not quite. Had someone come to visit? No, the big door hadn’t opened; people always came and went that way, not like those annoying yet oddly compelling birds that danced on the balcony in the afternoon. He wanted to play with them but couldn’t get through the glass.

A light voice beckoned from the other room, was it an offer of tuna? He walked across the stomach of his caretaker, who grunted, mumbling his name. The man called him ‘Pilot’, but that wasn’t his real name, which was impossible for a human to pronounce. He pitied his caretaker, his kind was practically blind and deaf, but as humans went, he was good, and sometimes there was tuna.

After leaving the sleeping room he turned right and entered the main area of his home. The place where tuna came from was on the left, and the soft furniture and the balcony where the birds taunted him was on the right. Directly ahead a desk supported the device his human played with at night. It was a box with a window beside it and a flat thing that the human clattered his fingers upon.

Something else was there too… no, not something, someone. A small human, a female he judged, but she had no scent and he could see through her, which was odd, but stranger still were her eyes, they glowed.

“Hello pretty kitty,” she whispered. “You can see me, can’t you?”

He purred and ventured closer.

“Can you help me? I need to press a few of these keys to access Mike’s computer.” She wiggled her fingers.

The strange human wanted to play. He jumped up on the desk and began swatting at her ghostly digits.


The FMC is not introduced until chapter 2. By then the reader knows she is a project manager and a friend from work, the first time she shows up in person is at his cubicle.
“Congratulations on another great job.” Mel’s soft voice swam through his drab environment. He glanced up as she pulled up a guest chair and sat beside him. She was a beautiful woman, four years his junior, with shoulder-length brown hair, tanned skin, brown eyes, a kind smile, and dressed in form-fitting jeans and a blue silk blouse. ‘How are you feeling?’ she signed. Her brother was deaf, so she was adept at ASL; she was the only person he could speak freely with at Forthright Concepts.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
Sorry I have been gone. Just finished a 12 day stint.

So this is a different kind of introduction...this is introducing a primary character, and a string of secondary characters in a single opening scene.

This is a diffuse method of character introduction.
The last one was a focused introduction.
This one sprinkles the introduction between ongoing action. Bits and pieces here and there until you see the whole puzzle assembled.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Day 0 Impact minus 00:02:10
Somewhere near Sonoita, Arizona


As the camera came to life, it captured a close-up of a pair blue eyes peering out from a ski-mask. Using a cotton rag to clean the lens, he gave the camera a satisfied nod before swinging it around to view the small band of soldiers clustered around the bunk. Some still in full combat uniform, others stripped down to their green T-shirts and digital cammie pants. Most of them grinned bravely for the camera, but the tension could be seen in their eyes nonetheless. Somewhere in the back of the room a small radio played a catchy tune about the end of the world as we know it.

“Yo, we’re at T-minus two minutes.” The voice came from the cameraman as he tried to catch someone’s attention. “Two minutes to impact.”

Filling the screen was a thick little woman with an eye patch. The Jose Cuervo bottle tattooed on her left bicep spoke volumes about her. Brown hair and dark eyes, she had a bulldog mannerism to her as she confidently took her place center stage. Giving a foolish grin she gave a Hoorah to get their attention. The Marines in the crowd, and most of the former Army pukes, all replied with a hoot of their own. Soaking it up, she grinned like a mad woman as she got the men cheering. Giving a lopsided smile, she finally turned back to the camera.

“So, for those of y’all in TV-land watching this video, I’m JoEllen Reynolds, former Gunnery Sergeant for the United States Marine Corps. Can I get one more HOORAH for the Corps!!” She gave another of her hearty calls to get the troops worked up. Cheering enthusiastically, the soldiers responded in kind. Giving a cackle, she returned her attention to the camera that filmed her just a few feet away.

“But only my Mama calls me JoEllen. My friends call me Gunny, and my enemies don’t call me nuthin’ at all because their mouths are all fulla the dirt I buried ‘em in. I’m squad leader for this broke-dick buncha vets you see here. We call ourselves The Profile Squad.” She flashed that confident smile again before taking a drag from the Marlboro Red clenched in her fingers.

With the rest of the room celebrating, the immense man in the corner was conspicuously out of character. Tall, with ebony skin, he simply stared at his phone as if willing it to come to life. Colby Briggs had no interest in the celebration.

“That Ashley guy wanted to call us Knights of the Round Table or some such shit.” He looked up from his phone momentarily. Colby was a mountain of a man, even seated. Whenever possible, he tried to keep the weight off his prosthetic foot. Relatively new to his titanium appendage, his leg still grew sore quickly where muscle met plastic. His therapist had told him it would take time to fully callous his leg for a lifetime of artificial feet.

“Knights of the Round Table?” Gunny Jo gave that a sneer of disbelief, “Like King Arthur ever had anything as awesome as me sitting at his round table.”

“That’s just it; we don’t even got a round table in this place. They got their deluxe accommodations and we got the servant’s quarters, so I don’t see why the hell he calls the place Camelot.” Briggs again rumbled as he shook his head. There was agreement among the other vets before Gunny took center stage again.

“So we are about a minute thirty away from riding out a meteor impact in a specially designed bunker built by our boss, some crazy internet software millionaire asshole named Ashley Pitt or Pitts, not sure which. Anyhow, I shouldn’t talk too much shit about him since he was nice enough to give us all jobs when a lotta other cocksmokes wouldn’t even give us an interview.” Gunny Jo tried to take the high road and stay positive. A lifetime cynic, she had never been one of those happy, upbeat people. There simply was not enough Tequila in the world for that.

“Yeah, sure.” Colby gave a shrug. He hired us because we were on sale, damaged goods, marked down. We were in the discount bin, that’s why he hired all of us.” Colby Briggs was dour as he stomped his prosthetic foot before returning his attention to the phone in hand.

“So anyhow, lemme introduce ya to the crew.” Gunny Jo grabbed the camera and dragged the point of aim around forcefully, “on the team we got our footless sniper Colby Briggs who ya already met. Next to him we got Mo the one-armed SAW man, then behind the camera we got Shady Peters. He don’t like to be on camera, doesn’t feel he’s photogenic enough. Next to him, that big crazy lookin Puerto Rican is Vigo. He’s the weapons specialist and all around gunsmith.” Each of them waved as the camera panned them in turn.

Behind them, the barracks door slid open before another soldier strode in purposefully. Zooming in on the new man, the camera captured the subdued Captain’s bars attached to his shirt. Even without the rank, he had a commanding presence there among the enlisted personnel.

“And that there is El Capitan Sparky Jackson, formerly an Army Ranger who is now two feet shorter than he used to be. Get it? He lost both feet? Now he really has a spring in his step, literally. What up boss? I figured you’d be hangin’ with the elite instead of slumming with us.” Gunny Jo gave a laugh.

“Johnson, Mendez, I need you on tie-down duty. Go and double check the moorings for all the vehicles. Boss’s orders.” All business, Captain Jackson gestured towards the door.

“Sparky, the radio says we got like thirty seconds before impact, you sure about sending them out there?” Jo had no qualms about being overly familiar with her commander. Despite the uniforms, they were really civilians after all.

“Doctor Heffler says we have like three minutes or more by his calculations.” The Captain simply shrugged. It was clear that he was not entirely comfortable with the plan, but he had his orders. Within seconds Sparky had departed with two of the soldiers.

“Doctor Heffler. Hmmph.” Briggs gave another of his deep grumbles. “That guy talks too much.”
 
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