Notes on how to effectively introduce a main character
Notes on how to effectively introduce a main character
I’m a person. You’re a person. In fact, everyone reading this – at least until our robot overlords have developed sentience – is a person, a human being. Homo Sapiens. The ape with two opposable thumbs and a bad attitude when it comes to disposing of its own waste.
Not only are we people, we also love other people. When someone’s hit by a car, and they’re bleeding out on the road, inevitably their last words are, “Tell So-And-So I love them.” At least they do in Korea, where So-And-So is a surprisingly popular name.
Ok, puns over.
Ideas are cheap and rarely original; what keeps people reading are the other people in the story.
That’s right, I’m talking about characters.
Your characters don’t have to be nice, although it helps, and they don’t have to be charming, although it helps, but what they do need to do is form a connection with the reader.
The onus is not on the reader to make this connection. The character must do the work.
Here are some writing tips to effectively introduce your main character
1. Make your character vulnerable
All of us, at some point in our lives, has felt vulnerable. Every one of us has been excluded from a group, been bullied or mocked. We have each felt embarrassed, humiliated.
Well, now’s the time to cash in on that shame!
This is a neat trick to pull out very early in a story, and it can be done in as many ways are there are to people in the world.
I use it myself a lot. In fact, I use it in my fun SF story, A Man Most Imperilled, which is out in the new edition of the fantastic Mothership Zeta – you can read the story here.
In it, the main character, Professor Zircon, a mad scientist recluse, is being forced out of his ancestral cottage by ruthless property developers. So immediately, he’s under pressure. When he goes to argue for his rights, the developers belittle him to his face. How could you not want him to beat them in the end?
Another great example of this is in Flowers for Algernon, an amazing piece of literary sci fi. Charlie Gordon, the main character, starts the story dumb. Here’s the first paragraph
progris riport l-martch 5 1965
Mr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that st happins to me from now on. I dont know why but he says its importint Is so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me. Miss Kinnian says Ie maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Id Gordon. I am 37 years old and 2 weeks ago was my brithday. I have nuthing more to rite now so I will close for today.
He works at a bakery where he is constantly the butt of all the jokes. They all mock him for being thick. We see this, and hate them for their cruelty.
Over the course of the book, Charlie is given mind altering drugs to make him smart.
What’s the first thing we want to him to do with this new found intelligence?
That’s right, shove it down the throats of the goons at the bakery.
This trick is not just popular in books, but films too. Check out a new film called The Big Short, about the housing market crash in 2009 (it’s more fun than it sounds),and you’ll notice how much attention at the start is paid to Christian Bale’s fake eye. Very early, there’s a flashback. He’s playing football at school, he gets clattered, his fake eye goes flying. He has to scrabble around in the grass for it while the other kids laugh.
It’s a smart way of getting you to sympathise with someone who both helped to cause the crash, and who made a profit from the millions of people who lost their homes.
2. Make your character active
There’s a great book on writing by James Frey called How to Write a Damn Good Novel (if you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it). In his section on character he coins the term Homo Fictus. This is the species of character that makes things happen, that takes action – even if this action is to do nothing at all.
A character that’s making choices is an active character. If they’re capable as well, so much the better.
Using my story again as an example. Zircon is a mad scientist; he uses those skills to create weapons to defend his home against the property developers.
Another example, again from one of my favourite books, is in Fay Wheldon’s The Lives and Loves of a She Devil*
The main character is a put upon housewife. She’s tall, frumpy, unappealing. Her husband is cheating on her with her opposite: a petite, blond romance novelist.
Does the wife sit back and let this happen?
No she does not. She starts to steal the mistresses’s life.
I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who’s not read it, but suffice to say it’s one of the finest novels about revenge you’re ever going to find. Go buy a 70p copy on Amazon right away.
* I had the privilege of meeting Fay a couple of times when I was doing my MA at Brunel – she was the course director. The first time was at the greeting drinks. I asked her about She Devil, whether it was, as is widely thought, a metaphor about the media’s portrayal of women. In reply, she smiled slyly, rubbed her finger around the rim of her red wine glass, and said, “It’s whatever you think it is, dear.” Clearly, she was coming onto me. Although she was drunk, and about ninety, at the time.
3. Make your character flawed
What about the anti-heroes? Unreliable narrators? Patrick Bateman! What about Patrick Bateman?
Patrick Bateman, for those who can’t be bothered to click the link, is the eponymous psychopath in American Psycho. He’s a pretty loathsome guy: misogynistic, racist, a preening snob, rich without having worked a real day. Still, for over 400 pages, you can’t look away.
How is that possible?
Because he’s dead inside. He’s desperate to be part of the world, to connect to the people in it, but he can’t. Despite his looks and wealth, he is and forever will be alienated.
It’s a fatal flaw in his character.
Once you start looking, you see these kinds of flawed anti-heroes everywhere. My personal favourite is Bukowski. Okay, I know Bukoswki is the writer not the character, but no-ones’s fooled by the name Chinowski.
Take the famous rape scene from Post Office – which, amazingly, you can download as a PDF from here
I reached down with my mouth, got one of her tits, then switched to the other.
“Rape! Rape! I’m being raped!”
She was right. I got her pants down, unzipped my fly, got it in, then
walked her backwards to the couch. We fell down on top of it.
She lifted her legs high.
“RAPE!” she screamed.
I finished her off, zipped my fly, picked up my mail pouch and walked
out leaving her staring quietly at the ceiling…