Tuesday, January 19, 2010

WRT: The Importance of First Words - Character Clues and Cues

I see a lot of writers write about when and how to introduce characters into a story (not too many too soon, provide unique clues to aid the reader, avoid multiple characters whose first names share the same first letter, etc, etc ...). One thing you don't see a lot of is how do you use character introduction - and I mean in the first paragraphs of your first chapter - to help readers connect with the story and to provide a sense for where the story is going to take them.

Most likely you, as the writer, will want to introduce your main character(s) very, very soon after the reader opens your book to that magical first page and reads, "Chapter One." There are exceptions to this general rule, of course, but unless you're intentionally delaying this critical introduction for a very good reason, then seriously consider adhering to this guideline.

To see how successful authors introduced their characters, let's look at a couple examples, randomly pulled from my bookshelf.

Here's the first paragraph from Kim Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter:

The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began. A few flakes at first, in the dull gray late-afternoon sky, and then wind-driven swirls and eddies around the edges of their wide porch. He stood by her side at the window, watching sharp gusts of snow billow, then swirl and drift to the ground. All around the neighborhood, lights came on, and the naked branches of the trees turned white.

We meet the story's two main characters immediately, husband and wife, not by name (in fact, we never learn their names until Chapter Two), but by a sense of how they see the world. How does Edwards clue us into the wife's character? The imagery she uses is soft, low-contrast, gentle ("snow started to fall" "few flakes" "dull gray" "swirls and eddies"). In contrast, the husband is cold and unfeeling. He watches out the window (why isn't he watching his wife as she labors to have their children?). He comes to us in a sentence where the first adjective is "sharp." Not directly defining him, but those "sharp gusts" tell us how he sees the scene outside that window. Interestingly, Edwards uses the same word twice ("swirl/s"), surprising us with our contrasting response to it (first, as something soft; second, as something cold). In those first four sentences, we have everything we need to know in order to move forward with the story.

The opening line of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkable smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Eugenides deftly uses contradiction to tell us about his main character. First, he emphasizes the miracle of a smogless Detroit day to underscore the mistake of Calliope Helen Stephanides' birth. He then tells us that she became Cal in a venue we associate with accidents: the ER. How does this make the reader feel? Sympathetic. Why? The idea of a transgender main character is enough to make most people squeamish (even more a decade ago when this was written). And yet, by giving us some insight into Cal's mind, we can't help but feel sympathetic.

Do your character introductions fall flat? Do they provide a sense of the person you mean them to be without actually describing them in such terms? Do you help your readers connect with your characters by showing their flaws, by giving them something to yearn for, by making them human, no matter how foreign the subject matter might be to the reader?

Speaking of yearning, that's the subject of the next FIRST WORDS discussion: CRAVING.

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