Writing Meaningful Character Introductions and Descriptions

Have you ever started reading a book and felt like the author just created a laundry list of bland characters?  You flip to the back of the book seeking a character glossary, or you do a search on your e-reader to figure out where this particular fellow first appeared.  Who is this character, why is he important, and why do you not remember his name?

Writers tend to be detail-oriented readers, so if you’re backtracking to find the first mention of Joe Oddsbody in some book, you can be sure that the general reader had to go back, too.  Or the average reader won’t go back, just figuring it’s a new, undeveloped character, and your increasingly unhappy reader will plod through the book wondering why Mr. Oddsbody never fixed in their mind.  All that good backstory you thought up, the poignant moment where Joe meets his long-lost daughter but doesn’t recognize her… all failing to make an impact because you didn’t fix Joe Oddsbody in the reader’s mind at the very first meeting.

First impressions are everything, and with new characters in novels, the first impression is the only one you get.  So how can you be sure to get it right?

In a previous Saturday Snippet, I provided an introduction to one of my major characters, the warrior Balex.  I did my best to exclude any spoilers from both the excerpt and the discussion below, so my analysis here is only about how Balex is memorable, not how his introduction dovetails with the rest of the novel.  After reading the excerpt, there are a few takeaways about Balex, in roughly the order they appear:

  • He’s a big, tough, dangerous dude
  • Some bad guy’s got it out for him
  • Everybody knows who he is
  • He worked hard to get as good as he is

Just based on the snippet [link] provided, the reader gets a sense of the world I created – there’s a tournamenting knight who visits taverns and fights with a sword, and there’s a few places mentioned to give you a sense of geography.  It’s a casual reference to world-building, not an in-your-face history of the enmity between two neighboring nations that began with an argument over the height of a wall.  The reader gets the sense that Balex is a well-traveled man, one who received an impressive education.  You therefore expect him to be well-informed and knowledgeable when he speaks and acts.

Physically, Balex is a force to be reckoned with – he fights to win, and his opponents fear him.  Now, given just this information, the reader might assume that Balex is a hothead who indiscriminately destroys anyone who crosses his path, so we have to depend on other details dropped in the story to guide the reader to the correct conclusions.  The biggest indicator to the contrary is how other characters, whom we already know in the story, regard Balex.

Based on previous mentions of Balex in the novel and where this clip appears, the reader is predisposed to like Balex.  He’s best friends with my main character, Del, and she obviously cares about his well-being.  They’ve known each other a long time, and they’re drinking buddies.  He first appears here, in less than happy circumstances, so the reader worries that something bad is happening to him.

By extension, we also automatically dislike the person responsible for Balex’s bad situation.  A villain is introduced here – a dangerous, powerful, unscrupulous man that the reader registers as a baddie because neither Balex nor Del respects him as a person.  Here is the conflict – and, since without conflict we have no story, it is vital that major conflict surrounding Balex is presented during this introduction.

You might have noticed that there’s no major feature description – hair color, eye color, height, weight, astrological sign, etc.  We’re not writing a personal ad for Balex, we’re making sure he’s memorable enough to the reader that when he’s mentioned by name again, the reader remembers the heroic knight who’s Del’s best friend.  Their drinking or traveling together, the vast past of all their experiences together, all boil down to these salient qualities – hero, knight, best friend.

He’s famous for his achievements, and people recognize his shield or coat-of-arms.  There’s a bit of history buried here in the symbols on his shield, something I might use later in the book or even later in the series.  But for now, we have a picture of his shield that might make a good cover image or character illustration.  It’s subtle, though, and the fact that kids make play-armor with Balex’s coat-of-arms drives home the idea that he’s a hero.

So in this introduction to Balex, we got several important pieces of information:

  • Flavor for the story setting
  • Distinguishing personality and physical traits for the new character
  • Conflict involving the new character

From the very beginning of the novel, I had a clear picture of who Balex was (maybe not what he looked like, but definitely how he acted). So in writing the character, I wanted the reader to have a certain impression of him.  I wanted the reader to see a knight capable of herculean feats with a large appetite for life.  He needed to be heroic yet approachable and likeable so the reader would be invested in what happens to him throughout the course of the story.

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