Don’t let your main character get away

One item that agents and editors expect—or demand—is that the author provides enough about the main character to draw in the reader from the very beginning. They don’t want a detailed description of appearance, education or employment. However, the text should reveal the character’s name, age, sex, major motivations and level of savvy. 

The other requirement for submissions is that the novel open with the major character or a close friend on the edge of death—or at least in a volatile conflict that cannot be easily resolved. The beginning must drop readers into action to keep them going forward for pages to uncover how this event will transpire. If the author offers a promising hook, and then retreats into a backstory, that is a bad sign.

Both of these techniques are assumed to engage readers. The reason why authors struggle with beginnings is because building the character and ratcheting up the action in a plot are basically opposite ways of developing a story. It is an extreme challenge to do both at the same time.

if the inciting incident occurs on the first page, the movements and thoughts of the main character focus on the goal of getting out of trouble. There is scarce time for self-reflection on one’s life. Revealing the protagonist so the reader can relate requires internal thoughts, conversations with others, or responses to more normal troubles. It’s a poor tactic to simply dump information about a character’s background, motivations, or level of sophistication in their society. Doing this right consumes precious reading time.

I have often experienced this conflict of expectation. In an attempt to show readers the inside of an adolescent named Maria, I included interior thoughts in which she considered what her younger sister was likely to think. A reviewer dismissed this with, “That’s not normal in a teenager!” Another person wanted to dump this young adult protagonist into immediate danger, but then questioned why her mother sent her outside to check on her younger brother when she heard gun shots.

Neither of these people obtained much understanding of Maria from the basic information about her. Of course, she is not a normal American teenager, her Hispanic roots collide with expectations of living in an southern American town. She takes her responsibility seriously as the “little mama” in her family. However, there is little time to follow this character around to demonstrate who she is, if I must grab reader’s attention by introducing danger immediately. For the person who is unfamiliar with Maria’s culture, her actions will not seem to make sense.

So, what is to be done? Often the author is stuck with listing the character’s name, age, sex and major identifying traits within the first page while launching the action. There is no time for showing; I have to tell. At least, I should choose unique words and poetic phrases, so that this telling seems somewhat intriguing. Or, I could be brave and go against the current. I might spend delicious time to unfold my main character so that the reader has a deeper level of involvement as the threat looms on the horizon. Most often, I choose the second path.

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