June 9, 2020

Making a Good First Impression with Our Characters

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m exploring story beginnings and the role our character introductions play in readers’ impressions. How can we make sure our method of introducing our characters will create the right impression? Let’s take a look…

What’s the First Impression of Our Characters?

We’ve probably all heard the truism that first impressions are important. That applies in real life, and it equally applies to how readers perceive and experience our stories.

For as difficult as we know story beginnings are to get “right” (for many different reasons), we also have to think specifically about how we’re introducing our characters. Although we know who our characters are, the first scene where readers “meet” our characters sets the stage for those important first impressions.

If readers get the “wrong” impression of our characters, they might find our story or our characters less likable, compelling, relatable, etc. And that can make readers reject our book before they get past the free “Look Inside” pages.

What Do Readers Expect?

Okay, but let’s say we’ve avoided a bad impression, does that mean we’re in the clear? Not quite. Even if readers stick with our story, the “wrong” type of introduction to our characters can skew reader expectations.

For example, if readers get the wrong idea of our character’s weaknesses or goals, that can make them expect a different plot or story arc until they’re set straight. But as we know from real life, it can be hard to overcome an inaccurate first impression. So by the time the real arc is apparent to readers, they might be several chapters into our story.

In other words, an inaccurate first impression can also be a risk, especially when it sets up readers for the wrong expectations. When their expectations aren’t met, readers might be disappointed by our story.

Example of Mismatched Impressions and Expectations

Let’s say readers first meet our main character having a bad day. They’re grumpier than usual and sniping at all their coworkers.

Even if readers understand why our character is having a bad day, such as their car breaking down on their way to work, that personality trait of taking out their aggravation on the innocent is still going to make an impression. Readers might expect that over the course of the story, the character is going to learn to not take others for granted or to chill a bit or to learn how to apologize and do better.

But what if our story is about our character learning how to stand up for themselves? Readers are less likely to root for our character when they think they’ve already seen the result of our character “speaking their mind.” And when readers realize what the story is actually about, there’s a good chance they’ll be disappointed and not connect with our story or character.

How Can We Avoid the Problem?

How can we know if our scene is setting the wrong expectations? One answer is to make sure we’re revising and editing our story with the reader in mind, but that’s often tricky to do.

How can we help readers get a good (or at least accurate) first impression of our characters? Click To TweetAfter all, we can’t crawl into our readers’ minds to know how they interpret our words, and even in the best of circumstances, it can be hard to get our thoughts down on the page in a way that matches our intentions. Feedback is often our best bet for figuring out the mismatches.

But specific to the example above, the key to understanding why that introductory scene wouldn’t work is that the set up forces our character to act “out of character.” That’s especially a problem when the out-of-character behavior makes them look bad, like with this example.

Readers don’t know that xyz behavior is out of character for them because our character is a stranger to them. An out-of-character scene doesn’t allow readers to get to know our character and see their current personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Character Introductions: Making the Right Impression

What are some other keys to getting our character introduction “right”? Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing:

  • why it’s so hard to get character introductions “right”
  • 5 factors that help make any scene better
  • 1 extra element needed for our story opening
  • 5 considerations for creating the right first impression
  • what to avoid with any character introduction
  • what aspects to look closer at when revising to fix issues

Can you think of stories that didn’t do a good job with introducing the main character? What was off about it or how would you have changed it? Does it make sense how bad or misleading first impressions can hurt our story? Do you struggle to figure out the right way to introduce your characters? Or do you have any insights about character introductions or reader impressions? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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I’ve already commented on this in the WHW blog post, but I’ll comment again. THIS IS HARD. I’m a decent writer and I’ve been told I’m good at characterization. But I just can’t seem to get the first chapter right. However, I’ve recently found a good writer-critique group who gave some good pointers. My key problem was I jumped too quickly into the action and so there wasn’t enough exposition.

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