So, I’m still working through the comments to that post where I asked you all for topics for “Writer University” lessons.
One of the things you guys asked me was how to start your book by creating sympathy and interest for your character.
One of you said that you can do this by putting your character in dire straits but for some reason that sometimes turns people off. This is true. So…
I’m going to explain my method to engage the reader with the character early on. It’s not actually my method, but Kris Rusch’s, or at least the impetus for it was.
Kris once told me that when you first meet your character it’s like someone ringing your doorbell. So if the character is screaming, crying and complaining about their life, you close the door in their face, because there REALLY is no point putting up with that from a stranger.
So, from the “Stranger at the door” method of getting people to bond with your character:
- Have your character say something catchy to open the relationship. Like, you know, the guy at the door who instead of saying “have you heard the word of—” says “don’t you hate door to door evangelists?”
Depending on the sub-genre having the character say or do something you don’t expect, is often “interesting.”
Hence Athena Hera Sinistra introducing herself with “I never wanted to go to space” which is definitely interesting.
You could have the main character of an urban fantasy open by saying something like “Vampires don’t exist, and I have reason to know.”
Or the main character of an heroic fantasy open with “Only fools believe in magic.”
Okay, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that often works.
- Have the character in a horrible/tense situation. This one is hard to navigate, and you should look at the next point for another caveat. It’s hard to navigate PARTICULARLY first person, because if your character is describing how he’s up to his ass in alligators while sewage rains on him, he’s going to sound incredibly self-pitying.
Self pitying puts people off. Imagine that stranger ringing your doorbell and going “I’m broke, and I lost my job, and my girlfriend hates me and…” You’re going to close the door, right?
Imagine that Monster Hunter International opened with “I’d always had a lousy relationship with my father, which is probably why I ended up in this horrible job with an asshole boss. And then my boss turned into a werewolf.”
It’s still sort of catchy, yeah, but not like getting to live the American dream by tossing your boss out the window. So, instead of whining, if your character is up in alligators and drowning in sewage, have him react in an active way. “I picked up the alligator biting my *ss and drowned him in sh*t” type of way. It might still shock us, but it won’t put us off. However, see the next point.
- Dance the reader slowly into the weird side.
PARTICULARLY while writing SF/F. What I mean is this – and this is a sin I’m prone to – say you’re writing in a parallel universe where dragons are real and elves were half of the American Civil War and…
Such a universe would have a very different history, very different rules, etc.
Don’t start by naming ten cities the reader never heard of and which have weird Sanskrit derived names, all supposedly big cities in the US, then describing a dragon attack, then parlaying with an elf, all in the first ten pages of the book. Or rather, don’t do that without some serious grounding.
The weirder your book is, the more you should start with a familiar problem. Say, your character is looking for a place to buy lunch. At which point he gets attacked by a dragon. Afterwards, he has a business meeting with an elf. All of it grounded against a “familiarish” landscape of US big city or small town.
You have to give the reader enough familiarity that they can sort of see why your character is in trouble and anticipate worse trouble for him. If you’re floating in a world where you don’t know any of the rules, you’re not going to be able to build tension by making the reader anticipate trouble. So make sure there’s some familiar stuff there. (Or you’ll need a pre-book glossary and history, and most people just DON’T read those, sorry.)
- Don’t let your character cry. This is not an absolute rule. Your character might just hold off long enough that when he finally breaks down and bawls in the middle of the book, it’s a serious thing. Same for any other strong emotion, including love. Hold off just long enough that your reader gets there before the character.
But in your opening scene, don’t have the character crying and lamenting her fate. Because people crying isn’t interesting.
- Dress the character nicely. I.e. unless you’re either trying a mental Judo move and using your reader’s dislike of your character against your reader, do not start off with your character doing something horrible, or even having bad grooming or poor manners. Remember this is the stranger at the door. You want people to like him.
- Mental Judo – in the first page you show the character drowning puppies. People follow him out of horrified shock. When in the second chapter you reveal he was drowning possessed hell hounds, people feel so bad for having misjudged your character that they love him DEFENSIVELY and he can do no wrong.
This is a tricky move to pull off, as you need to make him first just repulsive enough to be fascinating, not off-putting and second SO justified the reader can do nothing but love him and feel bad.
- The trouble your character is in doesn’t need to be the “trouble” in the book. Because the danger has to be understandable without knowing your world/dangers there/etc. it’s sometimes easier to start with a small incident that COULD be lethal or at least is bad. Like, say, your character is out at night hunting vampires and gets mugged by perfectly normal humans. (And then the vampires show up and eat the muggers, and then…)
- Don’t write sadsacks.
Under the “make your character vulnerable” part of making a character interesting, a lot of people view this as permission to make your character someone who’ll never survive by their wits alone.
Listen, if your character always needs someone to rescue her/him, then write the rescuer. People who do things are more interesting than princesses in distress, even if the princesses are male.
- Keep your character’s food obsessions, sexual kinks and other oddities off the page for ten pages or so. Unless the book is comedy or IS about the sexual kinks and food obsessions.
“I was hacking a zombie to pieces and dying for chocolate ice-cream” is catchy, of course. But “I was hacking a zombie to pieces and dying for steak tartare” might just make the reader go “ew”. Of course, maybe that’s what you want if you’re writing horror. But still ew.
- Americans love underdogs. Humans love gallant fighters. Handicap (and this doesn’t mean giving handicaps) your character just enough to make the fight interesting. And then never let him or her complain about fate. Ever, ever, ever. Have them take the lemons you gave them and make sweet, sweet lemonade. Or sour. Or spiky. But have them try to save themselves and if they go down, have them fall while fighting.
Readers tend to like that.