I keep getting e-mails from folks sending me their excerpts or whole manuscripts, to read, to sample, to give them my opinion. And I keep seeing the same problem over and over again. It's not the writing, the writing is usually pretty good. It's not what the story is about, stories are usually very interesting. It's not even style or setting or sentence structure, even suspense is often there, meaning I actually want to know what happens next after reading the first few sentences. The problem is with the characters. No matter how you turn your story, no matter how amazing its events are or the premise or the plot, it's about the characters, period. And if you fail to introduce your characters properly to me at the very beginning, chances are, I will toss your book. You have to make me care about these people, the people your story is about. Then I will keep reading. So, exactly how do you go about this? Actually, it's not that complicated. Here are a few patterns that I picked up from reading big awesome books by big awesome authors.
A few sentences is all you need. But those sentences are crucial. Think about introducing yourself to people who don't know you. What's the first thing you say? Your name. Right. And what usually follows? Typically you say where you work, what you do, as in, I'm a writer. Okay, we got that covered. What's next? Well, you start chit-chatting about mundane stuff like weather and whatnot. But you don't have that in your book, in your book something has to happen, right? So you jump into it and off we go. WRONG. You forgot to give us those few details that we get if we meet you in real life. All we need is a few paintbrush strokes, we don't need a whole page of detailed clothing description (though I've seen some examples of this being brilliantly executed.) So, spend another sentence on how the person looks, and remember about age, gender, size, and race. You'd be surprised at how many people forget to do this. Who is your character? A woman, a child, an old man? Tall, short, light skinned, dark skinned, red haired? What's your character wearing? And, again, only give enough detail to let us fill in the picture. Maybe it's a weird hat (mention specific things that helps us draw conclusion about what kind of person your character is). And after that, give one more important detail. You decide what it is. As a rule, use 5 senses, pick one that is most important about this character. SIGHT. Is he tall, short, fat, limping? SOUND. Does she cough a lot, and perhaps coughs up blood into a fine silk kerchief? SMELL. Does he reek of sweat or fine perfume? TASTE. This one rarely used, but you still could use it in the sense of a person appearing bitter from disappointments of life, or innocent and sweet as honey. Or, in case of magical creatures, a person could really taste like something very specific. TOUCH. Is her skin rough to touch, cold, warm, are veins on her neck pulsing? There, try it.
Pick out character descriptions when reading. This is why I read a lot, because the more I do, the more I see different ways of doing it, because of course there are a million bazillion strategies. I would say, the rule of thumb is, to make the reader fall in love, and not necessarily with the character itself, but with the possibility of a story that could develop out of this character. Here is an example I stumbled on today, which partially inspired me to write this post. Stephen King (of course, because I'm a fan) is one of the masters of doing this, and I'm currently reading Book 7, the final book from The Dark Tower series. He takes liberty to introduce a bunch of completely new characters in the book, and this one struck me as so disgusting yet riveting, that I had to actually close the book and marvel at it in my brain. See how he doesn't mention the age, nor body size or even hair color, but notice how you end up filling in the details anyway, almost smelling him (but he does mention name and occupation right off the bat):
"Pimli Prentiss, the Algul Siento Master, was in the bathroom when Finli (known in some quarters as The Weasel) knocked at the door. Prentiss was examining his complexion by the unforgiving light of the florescent bar over the washbasin. In the magnifying mirror, his skin looked like a grayish, crater-pocked plain, not much different from the surface of the wastelands stretching in every direction around the Algul. The sore on which he was currently concentrating looked like an erupting volcano."
There. BAM! Are you in? I'm in. Is it disgusting? You bet. More so makes you want to find out what he will do, right? See how he also cleverly twists in the description of the setting, Algul Siento. There is no embellishment here, pure character. This is enough to give us points to hook our interest on, but also leaves out enough for each of us as readers to fill in the rest of the details. You know why? Because everyone has known a disgusting guy like that, and we formed a strong bond with that person, a teacher, a relative, you name it. It's that person we imagine when reading this, and King cleverly taps into our imagination and roots us to what we know already. Because we care about what we know already, and that's the hook. It works like this. You know how the scariest movie is not the one where you see the monster, but where you don't and only hear it? You imagine the scariest thing you have even known, and it makes the movie scary for you. Same principle works here. You imagine the most disgusting person you know and you think Pimli Prentiss is that person. Brilliant.
Take your time to describe the character. In the end, if you can't fit the entire description of your character into one paragraph, feel free to stretch it into 2, or even more. It's better to explain everything to the reader than to leave the reader infuriated by being confused. Think about it. How many times have you set a book aside that got a little slow in places, as opposed to the book that you couldn't understand? I bet you it was the latter. We're willing to put up with wordiness if it leads us somewhere, but we can't read a writer's mind. As Kurt Vonnegut said: "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages." And since all stories are about characters, that's what you have to do, introduce your characters. You might argue with me that characters are also introduced via dialogue. Of course, of course they are. But before they even open their mouths, we need to know how their mouths look like, at least give us a glance, insert a dialogue line, and then continue description. And we will happily buy into your story.