GrubWrites

You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression: On Introducing Characters

What can you learn about a person in just a few sentences or with a glance or two? Look at the image to your right (thanks Dave). This woman is conveying something powerful. A novelist or fine nonfiction writer has the opportunity to convey all that complexity of meaning and implication through character description. Each word the writer chooses guides the reader in building an understanding of intangibles: a human being's motivation, perception, and potential. 

Have you ever flipped through a novel looking only at the way new characters are introduced to the reader? Try it. You'll learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t work.

Every writer has a ‘character crutch’ they fall back on, time and time again. Sometimes it’s hair or eye color, other times it’s posture or the like. Understandable. In the picture on the right, the woman's intrigue lies in her eyes and her mouth. The challenge for writers is how to convey that complexity without succumbing to tropes. How to be specific enough to convey something that feels unique. The very best writers do this so well that the reader doesn’t even notice because he or she has been thoroughly sucked into the black hole of that novel’s particular world. Isn’t that the best feeling?

Our characters carry the weight of our work on their shoulders. They have a big job to do. Art Director Kenjiro Sano, who creates characters (using images, not words) for ads, explains what it is he seeks to convey with his choices: “I use characters as one means of achieving clarity and communicability,” he says. “A character does not exist merely for the sake of being a character. Rather, it is the symbol of a personality.” Similarly in our writing, characters can achieve so much in terms of helping us convey the themes and issues we are struggling to explore in our work.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has polarized readers and critics, but one thing you have to admire is how energetically and with what specificity of detail she presents new characters. Here are some examples:

  • He was the smallest of the doormen: a wan, think, lively little guy, light-skinned Puerto Rican, a former featherweight boxer. Though he was pouchy in the face from drinking (sometimes he turned up on the night shift smelling of J & B), still he was wiry and muscular and quick--always kidding around, always having a cigarette break on the corner, shifting from foot to foot and blowing on his white-gloved hands when it was cold, telling jokes in Spanish and cracking the other doormen up.
  • His eyes were close-set, his nose beaky and birdlike; he walked with a limp--in fact his whole body listed to one side, one shoulder higher than the other; and if his slump had been any more pronounced, you might have said he was a hunchback. 
  • Mr. Barbour was a tiny bit strange-looking, with something pale and silvery about him, as if his treatments in the Connecticut "ding farm" (as he called it) had rendered him incandescent; his eyes were a queer unstable gray and his hair pure white, which made him seem much older than he was until you noticed that his face was young and pink--boyish, even.
  • He was a thirtyish guy with dark clothes and trendy eyeglasses who always looked as if he'd just come from a poetry reading in the basement of some church.
  • I found myself confronted by a strange woman, tan and very fit-looking: flat gray eyes, lined coppery skin, and teeth that went in, with a split between them. Although she was older than my mother, or at any rate older-looking, she was dressed like someone younger: red platfom sandals; low slung jeans; wide belt; lots of gold jewelry. Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her.
  • He was six foot four or six foot five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink.
  • He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark's place, comparing scars, begging for change--same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms, same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists.
  • There was something of Andy in the fixity of her gaze, also her breathlessness--his ashmatic gape reconfigured, delightfully, into parted lips and a sort of whispery starlet quality.

The next time you introduce a new character into a story--whether fiction or nonfiction--think about all the choices you have, and play around with your options. Take risks. Revise and try again. Read your work and the work of others with a critical (ie. highly observant) eye. Make it feel real, alive, imbue it with a flavor all your own.

A powerful first impression takes root every time a reader meets a new character on the page. And you, the writer, have both the burden and the opportunity to get it right. 

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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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