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 due to the difficulty of doing both at the same time.
When the inciting incident occurs immediately, such as 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. 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 motivations or level of sophistication. Doing this right consumes precious reading time.
I experience this conflict of expectation. I sensed that my decision to not reveal the gender of a child in a story told from the first person until the end was a point of contention for one prospective editor. For another not dumping a young adult protagonist into immediate danger meant nothing was happening.
In an attempt to show readers the inside of an adolescent named Mariela, I included interior thoughts in which she considered what her younger sister was likely to think. A beta reader dismissed this with, “That’s not normal in a teenager!”
Of course, Mariela is not a normal American teenager, which is a major cause of the conflict. She takes her responsibility seriously as the “little mama” in her family. However, for the reader who is unfamiliar with Mariela’s culture, there is no time to follow this character around to demonstrate who she is. I must grab their attention by introducing danger immediately for such a person to remain interested.
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.