Introduce your characters in 1 PARAGRAPH OR LESS

by Ksenia Anske


Photo by Adam Bronkhorst

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.

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Your story is right THE FIRST TIME

by Ksenia Anske


Photo by Brooke Shaden

This might sound like a paradox and a far fetched idea, considering common knowledge about the amount of rewrites every author has to go through to make final novel readable. Until last week, I was under the impression that true story comes out in rewrites. I felt like I have a vague idea where I'm going and that vague idea is improving with every Draft. What happened last week threw me off and made me rethink this. I started noticing that in Draft 5 I'd edit a sentence, then write a new one, and then discover that the new sentence is EXACTLY the same one I have written before, in earlier versions, as early as Draft 1. That felt trippy. It also felt like I came full circle, back to the original points that I've lost or dismissed in Draft 2 out of fear, in Draft 3 out of an urge to cut everything I could cut, and in Draft 4 out of perfection. Here is what I think this means.

Your subconscious knows better. The very first time you sit down to start writing, the first time you type up that sentence that starts your new novel, in Draft 1, it usually comes from a scene in your head that persistently wanted to get out. Before you get scared, before any thinking happens, it's pure emotion. And it's always right, it's why you want to write it down and share it with the world. But somewhere along the process all of our doubts start shadowing it, putting it in the corner, and then make us lose it completely. I think maybe that's the cause for writer's block - when we feel like the story is lost, that's when we don't know what to write about. This is just a theory, so feel free to disagree with me in the comments, but it feels right at this moment. Moreover, all of a sudden what Stephen King said in his On Writing made sense. He said that a story is like a fossil found underground, and all you do as a writer is gradually uncover it. So that first sentence, or those sentences that I would write again and again are points of anchor for my story that were always there, I just managed to lose them and find them again in the process.

Your story is a small thing, with big details around it. This is something that I have read about Fight Club and how Chuck Palahniuk, one of my favorite authors, came up with the idea. It started out as a short 7-page story published in the compilation Pursuit of Happiness, and only later it became Chapter 6 in the completed novel. The idea came to him after returning from a camping trip all bruised and being astounded as to why none of his coworkers asked him what happened. They all avoided it. Bingo. Remember what Chapter 6 is about? It's about the main character's boss not letting him to present at work because he's got a black eye. That's exactly what Chuck experienced when he showed up at work bruised. Emotion is the same, but scenario is very different. I've noticed the same stuff happen in my writing. Beginning of my Chapter 7 is the same as the very first idea I jotted down for my story way back in 2008. It repeated itself again in another attempt in 2010, then in Draft 1 it migrated to Chapter 4, and now finally it's back in Chapter 7 of Draft 5. How I didn't see this before, I don't know. I can only attribute my blindness to the fact that I'm writing a novel for the first time and am, of course, doubting EVERYTHING about it.

Your story is an emotional being. Every story is really a few characters being thrown into a situation and then dealing with it. Everything about it is emotional, because if it's not emotional, if it's pure facts, why read it? We read newspapers for facts. We read stories for drama. And, like every emotion, the first time we feel it, it's right. Before our brain kicks in and starts trying to make sense of it. So, no matter how crazy your first attempt sounds, it's the right one. Consider this. I don't know if you read Malcolm Gladwell, I do and love every single book of his. In particular, Blink. There he narrates a story of museum specialists who were called upon to identify an ancient statue, to confirm its authenticity. Every single one of them had an iffy feeling for the first few seconds they saw it, but then when they proceeded according to their established process, everything seemed to be legit. Needless to say, the statue was a fake, sorry to spoil it for you. Read the book for yourself, it's awesome. The point I'm trying to make is, all of those people FELT something before their brain kicked in. Evolutionary, we have been wired to feel and trust our intuition, to survive, to detect things and act quickly. Somehow along with being civilized, we lost this hunter-like ability and don't trust our gut as much anymore, yet we should. I think that's why the first time you write your story down, it's right. But it's hard to believe this, of course.

Having said all of this, I still wonder where this idea will take me. I suppose I'll see unravel in my second novel, trusting myself more second time around. But somehow in my gut I knew my story was right from that first moment I jotted down the first line. Then for 4 years I proceeded doubting myself to finally return back to it full circle. Fascinating. Did any of you have similar experiences? I'd love to hear in the comments. Please, please, please, with a cherry on top! So I know I'm not insane. 

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