“Introducing your protagonist to your reader may be the single trickiest job for a novelist. You have to let readers get to know your character in a very short time–then entice us go on a journey with this person into a brand new world. If you tell us too much, you’ll bore us, but if you tell us too little, you’ll confuse us.” – Anne R. Allen
A simple “hello” followed by one’s name is said to be the easiest and often most effective personal introduction. But, introducing the main character in a novel is much more difficult. In fact, as author Anne R. Allen says, it may be the single trickiest job for a novelist.
I recently learned this lesson the hard way. I belong to Chad Allen’s Book Camp, a training and community hub for writers. Services offered include Chad’s review of members’ manuscripts. I recently sent Chad the first two pages of my novel Sarah Finn which I am in the process of editing. I knew I had a lot of work to do in that regard. However, I didn’t think those efforts would include revising how I introduced my main character. The need to work on her introduction was clear when Chad’s reading of those beginning pages led to his confusion regarding the identity of my protagonist. I then realized I had a lot to learn about how to properly introduce my main character before making any revisions to those pages.
ADVICE ON MAIN CHARACTER INTRODUCTIONS
Anne R. Allen gives good advice for introducing a protagonist in her blog post found at https://annerallen.com/2011/09/14-dos-and-donts-for-introducing-your/. I recommend reading her entire post although three of her recommended “dos” for writing such introductions really resonated with me.
- DO open with the protagonist in a scene with other characters.
- DO put the main character in a place and time right away.
- DO give your main character a goal.
The publications of Writers Digest often provide authors with great tools to improve their writing. WD was no different as to its suggestions regarding main character introductions. The related article by Les Edgerton on the WD website at https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/write-better-3-ways-to-introduce-your-main-character presents three ways to write such an introduction.
- Keep physical description minimal.
- Characterize through action.
- Instill individuality and depth.
The Master Class website offers classes on a variety of subjects including writing. Its staff presents information about introducing characters in works of fiction that may be found at https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-introduce-characters#how-to-introduce-characters-in-your-writing.The article’s suggestions include:
- Introduce the main character as soon as possible.
- Start with backstory when appropriate.
After considering such information, I returned to the introduction of my protagonist and began to review my work.
INTRODUCTION OF MY PROTAGONIST
As Anne R. Allen suggested, I had a very limited opportunity to properly introduce my protagonist. The following three paragraphs that begin my draft manuscript were my first attempt to so act.
“My English class got an assignment to write an essay about the moment our lives changed forever. Some of my friends had real trouble coming up with something. Johnny Murphy said his life hadn’t changed a bit in all his fourteen years. Sherry Haney told him he was too young to even notice any changes, but since her fifteenth birthday last month she was able to look back at so many it was going to be tough for her to pick just one for her essay. As for me, it was pretty easy to remember when my life changed. It is stored in my mind like a movie reel I can take out, wind up, and play whenever I want or need to. That moment came when I first saw Sarah Finn—or rather the vision I later knew was Sarah Finn. I was eleven. It was the afternoon of April 29, 1963. The Oklahoma summer was beginning to sneak across days the calendar still thought were caught up in spring.
The heat of that April afternoon was pretty unusual. It clung close to my body like a big, hot pillow trying to smother me. The only relief I felt was when a dusty breeze blew across my sweaty face. My socks, my dress, and even my underwear stuck to my skin, and Momma’s old leather purse I used as my book bag felt like a chunk of lava pushing into my back.
My brother, William, and I were walking home from school like we did every day. As soon as the final bell rang, we would run out of the front doors of the Boomer D. Brown Elementary, a square, red brick building on a dead end street in Garnett, the closest town to where we lived. Our running slowed to a walk by the time we went the mile to reach the frontage road. Its cracked concrete seemed to sizzle in the heat. It followed alongside the big state highway and led to Rural 14, the dirt road we lived on. Momma thought we took the bus home. But, she didn’t get back from classes at the junior college till after nine most school nights and Daddy worked afternoons and sometimes nights at the paper bag factory, so they never knew we walked. ” (an excerpt from draft of Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor)
When I read these paragraphs, I see my attempt to fulfill the advice mentioned above. I introduced my main character immediately inasmuch as she is the first person narrator of the novel, and its beginning is written in her words. She is involved with other characters – school friends and her brother. Action begins in the second paragraph as the protagonist describes the heat of the day as she walks home from school with her brother. Details regarding such matters as her book bag’s being an old purse and her home’s being on a dirt road are offered to indicate the character’s individuality and depth while not focusing on her physical traits. Her first goal of simply relating the story of Sarah Finn’s role in her life is almost immediately presented. But, perhaps, the advice of providing a backstory for my protagonist early on in her introduction is where I fell short.
USE OF THE INFAMOUS DINKUS
Although my novel’s title is the name of a pivotal character, Sarah Finn is not the protagonist/narrator. My book is written in the first person, point of view of Cathryn Henderson, the novel’s main character. But, my introduction of Cathryn did not make that distinction clear as Chad Allen thought my first person narrator was Sarah Finn.
I attempted to introduce my narrator/protagonist Cathryn in a way that would also set up the introduction of Sarah Finn, the book’s main “catalyst character,” a term from author Roz Morris to denote someone who causes the main character to change. Of course, Sarah Finn is vitally important to the novel because of her dramatic impact on Cathryn’s life. In fact, Cathryn muses the moment her life changed forever was the moment Sarah Finn entered it. Yet, without distinguishing the protagonist from the title character from the start, the reader may be confused as to who is actually my first person narrator.
I contend the crucial error leading to this confusing introduction of Cathryn rests with my use of the dinkus. A dinkus is a set of three astericks used as section breaks to denote changes in the narrative such as a scene change or pause in the action. My use of the dinkus (which is now, by the way, officially one of my favorite words LOL) was meant to indicate a transition from Cathryn’s thoughts about when her “life changed forever” back three years to when that life changing event occurred. But, the dinkus confused Chad, and probably future readers, as to whether that section break indicated a change of narrators as well as a change in time.
I failed to establish the backstory alluded to by my narrator in the first paragraph was simply being told by the same narrator in subsequent paragraphs and, indeed, throughout the rest of the book. The separation of the story through the section breaking dinkus was unnecessary and confusing.
It looks like the seemingly never-ending editing process will be continuing for me. After all, as Anne R. Allen said, “Introducing your protagonist to your reader may be the single trickiest job for a novelist.” And, straightening out the kinks apparent in a “tricky job” takes time and effort.
Now back to work on Sarah Finn…
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