Introducing characters

Introducing characters header image

This month I’m trialing a new format for blog posts. Inspired by podcasts (notably the Dead Robot’s Society) I’m going to start with a little update on my writing and then dive into more depth on a writing topic I’ve been thinking about. This month I explain why my writing is taking a back seat, and discuss introducing characters.

April 2019 update

From the end of March and all through April, my life is a totally different beast. My wife and I welcomed our first child at the end of March, and the month became a blur of nappy changes, sleep deprivation and housework. The impact on my writing is total – I haven’t been able to get anything done. This post represents the first time I’ve felt that I can write something that won’t become a garbled mess of words. The bab is sleeping, my wife is taking a well earned nap, and the house is filled with a relaxing playlist.

And you know? I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Meal planner with baby column
The meal planner has a new column. Somewhat lacking in diversity at the moment

So I have no stories to share this month, I have no competitions entered and I have no news on my creative writing. I hope to remedy in May, but new babies have a tendency to take plans and vomit all over them, so it’s a bit of lottery.

Book cover of Writing Advice by Phil Hurst
Available now!

However, something has happened. Due to miraculous nature of Amazon pre-orders, my first non-fiction book, Writing Advice, is now available for purchase on Kindle. I’ve once again limited this book to an Amazon release, if only to take advantage of Kindle Unlimited.

You can buy the book here. Please do, and write nice reviews. You may see advertisements on Amazon for it as well as I try something new.

How should I introduce characters?

Having a bab (Birmingham/English definition below) in the house limits my writing opportunities as it’s difficult to write when one hand is rocking a Moses basket, holding a baby or folding tiny tiny clothes. I didn’t want to lose my connection to creative writing though, so I have made a conscious effort this month to try and intelligently consume TV when I watch it.

This leads to a question that, while I’ve thought about it in the past, In my writing, how are characters introduced? And how can I bring that into my own writing?

When watching TV counts as research (kinda)

Intelligent consumption of TV and books adds another level to how I take in stories. Rather than just watching the show or reading the book, I ask questions throughout. Why did the writer make this decision? Why is this happening now? It’s a little like research, only less formal.

The quality of the story makes this easier or more difficult. If I am really enjoying something, I find it more difficult to take the step back required to analyse it. If this happens, it’s probably something worth looking at again, and a rewatch is in my future.

With bad TV, or bad books, taking it apart as I watch it is much easier. In fact, it adds to the fun. Being able to identify clumsy plot holes and terrible character decisions can help me avoid similar mistakes in my own writing.

Thoughts on introducing characters

As I watch and read this enormous amount of content, I’ve tried to focus on how the writer introduces characters to the audience, Whether it is a cop show, a comic-book adaptation or a fantasy book, the introduction is key to setting the audience’s expectations of the character.

The speed of the character introduction

Have a watch of the first five minutes of GoldenEye.

When I watched this I noticed how long the writer took to introduce the character. Although it’s a bit of a trope of James Bond movies to do this, especially when a new actor is playing the super spy, this is used in a lot of movies and books when a writer wants to build up a bit of anticipation for a character. By building up a character as a sum of their parts, the audience can build their own picture of who the character is.

Other introductions are quick and brash. Take Tucco’s introduction from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

I’ll admit, it takes a while to get there due to some great misdirection from director Sergio Leonne. But the audience see everything they see need to in the first few seconds of the character’s appearance (helpfully frozen as the caption appears).

Show, don’t tell

Even though “show don’t tell” is good advice in general when writing, it’s key when introducing a character. Too much exposition from the writer can bore the reader.

If I can show bad guys something bad and good guys doing something good, I’ll highlight the alignment of the character with the audience straight away. The action has to be relevant though – there’s not point showing someone doing a charity fun run if the continuing story is about drug running in Sudan.

A referee tying a footballer’s laces. Image from Unsplash:

Think about the picture above. If this was the opening scene of a story, what would the action about tell the readers? Yes, it’s a kind act tying the little footballer’s shoelaces, but, the game is continuing in the background. Shouldn’t the referee be focused on the game? Isn’t that a bit irresponsible? Or is there another referee helping with the game, who the first trusts to look after the children?

That’s a lot to take from one picture, I know, but every now and then I like to look at images to start myself thinking creatively.

In terms of characters, the exercise above helps me think about the first ‘image’ of the character. Are they surrounded by fog, stepping in the murder scene? Or are they soaring above clear sky like an avenging angel?

It’s important to think about the number of these introductions, and what level of character I want to use them. Minor characters do not really need a significant, strong introduction. The police officer who holds the crowds back doesn’t really need to enter on a horse. I don’t want the writing to feel forced.

The tone of the story

Character introductions should never be just about the character. Even if I create a different character (like the antagonist police detective in a heist story) I don’t want their introduction to be totally different to the rest of the story. It’s easy to think that by being totally different in an introduction I’m being edgy and highlighting the difference.

A man on a rock overlooking a railway bridge in the mist
I will avenge my son/climb that mountain/destroy that bridge. What makes this image striking? How does the add to the overall tone of the story? Image from Unsplash.

Instead, I think I’m confusing the readers and taking away from the overall tones and themes of the story. Even if the character is completely different to the rest of the cast, I need to make sure that he or she is introduced in a setting that adds to the overall tone of the story and fits in with everything that’s going to happen.

Know the character to introduce them better

I recently started thinking about my next story, and the characters within it. By thinking about how I’m going to introduce them to the audience I’m able to define not just the characters, but also the world around them. Do I want fast paced, quick introductions? Or do I want the story to take it’s time a little more, allowing me to slowly introduce characters?

What this post has helped me do is think about how important knowing the character is before I start writing. I need to know what I want that character to go through, what I want them to achieve before I start writing their introduction. Not only will that help me with the tone of the story, but it will also let me know how I want to introduce them, and how they will stand out to the reader/watcher.

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