Introducing Characters

If there’s one thing that I often find more cringeworthy than Dan Brown writing a Twilight sequel, it’s the introduction of characters at the start of a story. Look anywhere and you’ll find a slew of rhetoric and advice on writing decrying adverbs, demanding we show not tell, admonishing infodumps, avoiding clichés and so on. One thing that seems to slip the net is that of character introductions.
This is only a thing for me at the start of a story. Once the valves of the plot machine have warmed up and the cathode rays of dialogue are clear on the tube, introducing characters is easy. You can slip them in casual conversation, wedge them into short pieces of prose. It feels natural.
At the start of a tale though, there can often be a stutter. Take this made up section of prose for example:

Doctor Ken Harwood leaned nonchalantly against the marble-topped bar. He winked at the Laura Cowan the barmaid, easily twenty years his junior. She grimaced as she threw bile up into her mouth but continued to clean the glass she was holding. Ken reached for his martini, his eyes locked onto her arse. His hand brushed the edge of the glass and knocked the strong gin and vermouth mixture across the bar.

Now, ignore the fact that it sounded like a Mills and Boon parody, I introduced two characters there. Clumsily, but not uniquely.

I see this sort of thing a lot, and I’m probably being pernickety, but then the writing business is all about pernicketing, or so I’m told. Yes, yes, this is the only time this will happen and I’ll never need to introduce them again, it’s over in less than a minute, like those pointless ‘Intro’ tracks on albums, but I find it a really jarring start to a story.

This introducing characters by their full name thing is a bit weird if you think about real life. The only real way I think it makes sense is if you’re narrating from a second-person perspective or a third-person omnipotent perspective.

If we look at this as from the third-person restricted point of view, with Ken as our subject, it immediately sounds weird. Why the hell would Ken be referring to himself by his full name and title? It makes no sense. Equally, unless he’s some kind of weirdo, he wouldn’t be thinking about the barmaid by her full name either, even if he knew it. It’s all just a little odd.

Take this example:

My name is Ken Harwood. I’m a Doctor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Blahblahshuddup. I have a problem. Women cannot resist me.

I leaned nonchalantly against the marble-topped bar, watching the pert backside of the barmaid, Laura Cowan. I winked at her as she caught me staring. She grinned at me while she polished a glass with those perfect little hands. I knew what she was thinking.

Even from the first person perspective, we have a problem. It doesn’t sound entirely unnatural to introduce Ken like that. Imagine he’s telling you the tale in a pub somewhere. It almost make sense for him to introduce himself like that. To me though, and this may well be a preference thing, it’s a massive cliché.

I probably should obsess over something a little more important, but this really grinds my gears. From any perspective, this to me sounds like a forced and staid infodump.

I like it better when authors introduce characters in a natural, almost relaxed way. This is especially obvious in third-person restricted and first-person PoV. If I’m writing in the first-person, the way I look at it is, I already know the person I’m narrating to well enough recount my story to them, so I can assume they don’t need me to introduce myself formally again. I never refer to myself by my name in my own head, so why would I unless I explicitly needed to?

You may think this is all bollocks and disagree, but I think being a little more creative around this makes the story feel more natural from the off, rather than a sputtering start.

Here’s an excerpt from my novel highlighting what I have done. Bear in mind, this is probably on the second or third page:

A man entered the tavern, opening the door barely enough for him to pass through, and closing it quietly behind him. He was taller than most in these parts, his face obscured by a dark green hunter’s hood. An expensive looking blade hung from his hip that gave him a swagger as he approached my table. He lifted his boot and kicked my feet from the stool upon which they were resting, and sat down.

“Adelan,” I said cheerily. Only a friend would survive such an act of disrespect against me without a mark to remind him of his folly. “You’re late, as usual.”

“I see you are none the worse for it though,” Adelan replied gesturing to the three empty steins on the table. “How have you been Rorick?”

It’s not literary fiction but it feels considerably more natural than just detailing the names outright. I suppose, if you think about it, it’s just another example of show don’t tell.

3 thoughts on “Introducing Characters

  1. The blade bounces as he walks. And he’s a big man, so when he squeezes through the tavern door he has to put his hand on it, to keep it from catching on the frame. The hood obscures his face, but he’s a hunter, that much is clear: the green wool, the well-kept blade, and something about his bearing make that plain
    A few patrons look up from their flagons, then look back down. He’s not the kind of man whose eye you want to catch. Me, I keep my gaze on his face, that shadowed place beneath his hood, even as he lifts one booted foot and kicks my feet from the stool on which they’ve been resting.
    Had he been anyone else …
    “Adelan,” I say. “I know you’re attached to that foot, so I’ll let you keep it. This time.”
    “Almost as much as you’re attached that ale, Rorick.” Which isn’t entirely fair: there are only three empty flagons sitting on the table in front of me, and I’ve been waiting a while.
    “So tell me,” he says, “how the hell have you been?”

  2. Sorry about the typo and bad formatting, too—the perils of posting too quickly.

Leave a Reply