For many of us the lure of a great book lies in its characters, or as MLK Jr. put it, the ‘content of their character.’ Solid world-building and intriguing plots go a long way toward engaging your audience. But at the end of the day, it’s the characters inhabiting that world, the people driving the plot that will keep your audience engaged.
A dynamic character instantly draws you in and keeps you invested.
While she may—and should—have a great ‘arc’ throughout the story, and have learned some vital nugget of truth about the world or herself by the end, it is her introduction that matters most, because this will determine if readers will stay with her or not.
One of the all-time greatest character-crafters was Charles Dickens. His books positively abound with dynamic people. They were all unique, distinct from each other, and they brimmed with intriguing peccadilloes and personalities. I remember he even infused a mule with personality, so that the mule made me laugh and feel for its plight.
Most impressive of all is Dickens’ ability to write compelling characters within 1 paragraph of their introduction. All it took were a few well crafted sentences, which included: an apt description of her physical appearance (this often included some deformity in his villains), an odd vocal trait that made her stand out, or a powerful belief that infiltrated her every thought, tainting or ennobling her words.
When introducing the Artful Dodger, Dickens swiftly draws an image of a flamboyant street urchin ‘—as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see . . . with all the airs and manners of a man. All decked out in clothes much too large for him — not to mention that huge fantastic hat — He was, altogether, as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers—’
With that 1 paragraph we discover the Artful Dodger’s height, bedraggled appearance (which is, as we learn later, also a metaphor about his nature), his manners, financial situation (poor enough to have to wear men’s clothing that do not fit him), his confident attitude through the use of the excellent descriptor ‘swaggering’, and that he wears a huge fantastic hat, telling us that he is fond of ostentation. This hat business is also a trademark of Dickens: the man liked to imbue his characters with contradictions. The Artful Dodger is a pickpocket, and so he needs to blend in; and yet, he wears a hat that most definitely doesn’t help in this endeavor.
Contradiction adds spice to any character. It is also a very realistic aspect of human nature.
J.K. Rowling also excels at characterization. Her brilliant introduction of the popular character Luna ‘Loony’ Lovegood is a prime example. Luna is mentioned in passing several times before we actually meet her on the train early in Phoenix. That is Rowling’s wisdom in evidence, building a foundation for a great character. (I follow this example in my Mythcorp series by making numerous references to Alexander, the antagonist, before we ever meet him). Here is Rowling’s intriguing introduction to Luna:
‘—she had straggly, waist-length dirty-blond hair, very pale eyebrows and protuberant eyes that gave her a permanently surprised look. Harry knew at once why Neville had chosen to pass this compartment by. The girl gave off an aura of distinct dottiness. Perhaps it was the fact that she had stuck her wand behind her left ear for safekeeping, or that she had chosen to wear a necklace of butterbeer caps, or that she was reading a magazine upside down.’
Wow. There is a multitude of fascinating character quirks to focus on there. Any one or two would’ve sufficed to write up Luna as ‘Loony’ in our minds, but Rowling gives us 7. Perhaps this is to drive home the point that Luna lives in her own world, untouched by concern for her appearance and how it is viewed by others. I rather think it is to allow various types of readers to pick out the trait they find personally most intriguing (my favorite is how Luna had stuck her wand behind her ear).
The point is that we know who Luna is the moment we finish reading that introductory paragraph.
This is how it should be for the majority of your characters. There are exceptions, one being the case of mysteries where we are not meant to know who is capable of murder/rape/mutilation until later.
So how do you craft compelling characters inside five sentences?
The trick is to focus on ORIGINALITY. UNIQUENESS. What is different about this character? If he is of average height, don’t mention that. Readers are smart people; they will fill in many blanks for you. All you need to do is construct an unshakably unique foundation.
In my upcoming thriller LOTTERYMAN, I introduce the MC, Gus Fludd, by comparing him to his ramshackle mansion. The similarity between man and house is vital to the plot, and by showing the similarities I save tedious repetitious description, thereby shortening the MS and giving it a faster-pace.
‘Fludd House looked as if it had engaged a neighboring abode in a vicious fight.
‘You should see the other house, Gus Fludd heard his Painted Lady whisper to him through the creaks and groans of antique strips of oak beneath his feet. The man was a bit overlarge and sagging in some areas—like his home. He paced the sprawling wasteland of his parlor as wind whistled through a busted front window that always reminded him of a mouthful of broken teeth.’
The adjectives here to describe the physicality of Gus are few and sparse, and yet instantly we have a mental snapshot of the man—and of his house. It’s clear without saying it that Gus and his home are not young, have seen better days, have been beaten down by time and the elements, and yet they are restless.
You can ‘infer’ much with few words, if those words are well chosen. Don’t rush it. Poets often agonize for hours over writing ‘the’ or ‘an’ in their work. You might take the same care in crafting your prose (although I wouldn’t go too far—it’d take years to write one novel!).
Another pointer: Don’t spill the beans on the backgrounds of your characters right away. Let your readers get to know them before you yank those skeletons out of the closet. Following the introductory paragraph, let your characters’ actions and words SHOW who they are. Reveal too much too early and your readers will inevitably forget some details. Remember, one or two adjectives along with the effect your character has on those around him should suffice at first.
In Iconocop, I forego physical descriptions of my MC altogether (partially because it’s First Person). Instead, I introduce Knox by showing him whipping his back with a belt as personal punishment for a transgression, getting annoyed by his abusive upstairs neighbor, and then marching—in nothing but sweat-stained shorts and fresh welts—upstairs to confront the man.
Imagine your characters are real; how would you view them and describe them the first time you saw them? What are your favorite character descriptions?