These People!

These People is a way to start a book not with immediate action, but in a way that makes us interested in what is going on because these people aren’t the sort we meet on our regular walk around the park.

These people grabs with the sheer weirdness of what these people are thinking/doing/talking about.

Mind you, after that you have to hook them with your plot, because, well, you can just keep flashing fascinating people in front of the reader, one after the other.  Or rather you can, but then nothing holds together and even the fascinating people become boring after a while.

If you are, as young, fledgeling Sarah was, someone who writes from the character out (the only thing in which I am a stereotypical woman, I think.  Well, that and the collection of shoes) one way to think of plot is that plot is your way to display the character.  No matter how fascinating your character is, if you only have him sitting there and thinking interesting thoughts/saying interesting stuff, people will get bored.  Even Nero Wolfe (at some point we need a post about naming characters, no?) had things happen to and around him for him to react to.  And not just going up to the orchids and cooking, mind you.  Even Rex Stout found it necessary to poke his immovable object out of the house now and then to make some facets of his personality more obvious.

So after you make us interested in your fascinating people, you must poke them out of their comfort zone and make them do things.  With plot!

For now, though, how do you convey their fascinating character right up front?

I once accidentally wrote a “these people” opening.  Stop laughing.  This was my first functional novel written not-in-my-first-world.  It came to me while pregnant with first son, but didn’t get set down till second son.  (And note that in between we moved three times.)  (Functional is relative, btw, since I crammed three books in one and my plot remained notional.  It was good enough however to win me some contests.)

So by that time I’d lived with the world for a few years.  And it shocked me when it won a contest and my conference with the editor who judged it yielded this “I wanted to read more, because these people don’t seem crazy or psychopaths.”


That’s because I opened with a man and a teenager sacrificing a bull.  For their system of magic it made perfect sense, since magic was performed by a symbiont who got fed by “spirit essence.”  They weren’t crazy, they were worried by rumors of war.  (Yes, I have to rewrite that eventually.  Now I know how.)  BUT opening the book straight out you go “Who are these people, and why are they doing this?)

One of those “these people” openings is Simak’s City, in which we’re in the head of a dog who informs us he doesn’t know if cities or men ever existed.  Yes, it’s also in a way a “Wait what” but it’s too slow for that, and you’re going along going “These… people?”

Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded.  I was sprawled there in the hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three time.

The room grew steady.

Where the hell was I?

Then the fogs were slowly broken and some of that which I called memory returned to me.  I recalled nights and nurses and needles.  Every time things would begin to clear a bit, someone would come in and jab me with something.  That’s how it had been.  Yes.  Now, though, I was feeling halfway decent.  They’d have to stop.

Wouldn’t they?

The thought came to assail me: Maybe not.

These people…. why is this man in a hospital.  Are the nurses and doctors treating him or making him worse?

And to prove this opening goes back a long while, Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about. He attracted me by three things: his candid simplicity, his marvelous familiarity with ancient armor, and the restfulness of his company–for he did all the talking.
We fell together, as modest people will, in the tail of the herd that was being shown through, and he at once began to say things which interested me. As he talked along, softly, pleasantly, flowingly, he seemed to drift away imperceptibly out of this world
and time, and into some remote era and old forgotten country; and so he gradually wove such a spell about me that I seemed to move among the specters and shadows and dust and mold of a gray antiquity, holding speech with a relic of it! Exactly as I would
speak of my nearest personal friends or enemies, or my most familiar neighbors, he spoke of Sir Bedivere, Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Launcelot of the Lake, Sir Galahad, and all the other great names of the Table Round–and how old, old, unspeakably old and faded and dry and musty and ancient he came to look as he went on! Presently he turned to me and said, just as one might speak of the weather, or any other common matter–

“You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about
transposition of epochs–and bodies?”

So, can you have interesting people, or people whose motives aren’t immediately apparent, to draw people to where the action starts?

Give it a spin.


  1. The man dressed as a stage magician didn’t attract much attention. Neither did the beautiful dark-haired woman sitting next to him. It’s was the four-foot tall rabbit that popped out of the magician’s hat that attracted attention especially when the rabbit had blue hair.

  2. My first novel ever has a ‘these people’ beginning. I think most everything else I’ve written since has been action (Though it may have a touch of ‘these people’ to it). I really should revisit that method again some day.
    Thanks for this post.

  3. Grandpa may have given an eye for wisdom but he sure could come up with some stupid ideas sometimes. I waited while papa knocked on the door of the strange dwelling. There were other doors, up and down the side of the oddly built longhouse.

    The door opened to reveal a man. His face lit up when he saw Papa.

    “Donner! It’s been a long time. What brings you back this way?”

    Papa placed a hand on my back and gently urged me forward. “This is my daughter, Thrud. My father has suggested that, with all the changes in the world it would be good if she fostered here.”

    The man looked from papa to me. I returned his smile with a scowl freezing the man’s smile on his face.

    “Come inside,” the man said. “And you can tell me all about it.”

  4. “Are you going to be able to get that lumber graded tonight, or do I need to call Leon in?”

    “I’ll get ‘er done. A 50/50 blend of synthetic and real works just fine, and I’m over the crud I caught from that stoner. Some people should not be allowed into the woods without adult supervision.”

    And Uncle Rich should remember not to drink blood from New Agers camping in the woods, but I’m not going to be the one to tell him. “That’s great. I don’t like calling Leon in unless it’s really, really important.”

    Rich nodded his agreement, stretched, gave me a fangy smile, and unfolded from the chair to go clock in.

    From something I started at ATH’s comments section and still need to work on.

  5. It was the pain that woke him. Again, or as usual. He sat up and reached for the bottle of pills by his bedside and fumbled out two pills and swallowed them down dry. Bleary eyes looked around his room and a few things were out of place. Actually the whole room was out of place. Instead of the usual bookshelves in his small bachelor apartment there were stone walls. The bed was feeling strange now as well.
    The third thing that struck him was the bandages on his chest. It all came rushing back to him. Mr. Black, the flash of his hand gun, and then the lightning. He shook his head. All this for a chance of adventure.

  6. I was born on the command deck of a battle cruiser. A priestess of Eternal Mars dropped blood in my squalling mouth. The enemies’ blood was my first meal, my destiny confirmed.
    OK, that’s BS. But if I’d said I was born in Surgery center C on a Repair and Resupply Ship, would you have read it?

  7. From “Ember”, one of my published stories:

    “Rel stood naked on the surface of a dying planet. All around her was desolation, a lifeless brown wasteland stretching from horizon to horizon. The storm of radiation and heat tingled on her skin.”

  8. [Book 2 in a serial; we already know all these people, at least by repute.]

    He was absolutely the _last_ person Flynn expected to encounter this deep into Torq space — let alone wearing that absurd Skai getup — the same brown woolen robes and hobnailed sandals and impractical bare knees that Kalin Travis affected. “Rikon…?”

    He turned, and she recognized her mistake. “Hardly,” he said, looking her up and down as if grading a corpse. “Licari Rividh, at your service.” His smile had a feral edge, like the fangs might come out at any moment.

  9. I awoke at half past dark. To put it mildly, I hurt. If there were any places where I didn’t hurt, I couldn’t find them. Most girls of my twelve years, hurting this much, would lie there crying for their mommies. For me, of course, crying for help was worse than useless. It would get me killed. Yes, I was doing mind control on myself. My pain nerves screamed their agony, but thanks to mind control I only heard them as distant murmurs. Mind control meant I could sleep. I still knew I hurt. A lot. ‘Hurt a lot’ was still infinitely better than the alternative, which involved being seriously dead.

    I wondered confusedly what had happened to me. I was lying in a bed, not in my normal sleeping position. The room was dark. For minutes I was too dazed to think clearly. I peered over my bedsheet and quilt. I was in my own bedroom. Beyond the glass wall separating me from my balcony, the silent stars glittered in a cloudless night sky. If I waited long enough, I’d see them sink one by one into the pitch-black hills of the coastal range. The shadows on the wall were my collection of Captain Infinity Atomic Soaker pistols, soakers, except the one pistol that very definitely did not project water.

  10. This story begins, as most of my stories do, with a visit from Kit. Kit has been my best friend for over twenty years, and during that time she’s convinced me to sneak into a Horror Holo, explore the maintenance tunnels of the Mars 17 station, run away from home, sabotage the security at the Center for Martian Sciences, and participate in a mass jailbreak. Fortunately, Kit was as good at getting out of trouble as she was at getting into it, or both of us would have been on a one-way trip to Neptune long ago.

    I was reading some papers on quantum theory when Kit poked her head into my office. “Hey!” she said.

    “Morning, Kit. I suppose that checking in with security so that they could let me know you were here was just too much trouble?”

    “The security man looked busy. I didn’t want to bother him. Anyhow, I’m not going to disturb you too much; I’ll just be a minute. I wanted to make sure you were coming to the Redstones’ ball this evening.”

    “Wait, what? Of course I’m not.”

    “But it’s for charity. You do support helping children suffering from radiation sickness, don’t you?”

    “Yes, of course, but–”

    “And your own sister is working in the department that will be doing the research. You don’t want Julie to think you don’t value her work, do you?”

    “Julie knows–”

    “Is the problem that you’re afraid of the Redstones? I know you don’t care for those would-be aristocrats, but surely for a cause like this–”

    “No, I’m not afraid of the Redstones as you know full well.”

    “Great, I’ll see you there at seven, then.”

    “Kit–” She gave me a look, and the long list of objections that I was going to give somehow got lost. The only one I could remember was, “I couldn’t afford it. Do you have any idea how much the tickets cost?”

    “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll make sure that you’re on the guest list. So see you at seven.” Kit vanished before I could ask her any more questions.

    I sighed. Somehow, Kit always found a way to get her own way. Sometimes I helped her willingly, sometimes I was dragged in without understanding what was going on, but I always ended up part of her schemes.

    Kit reappeared. “Oh, before I go, there’s one more thing, Sasha. I don’t know what you’re planning on wearing to the ball, but whatever it is, I would make sure that it’s waterproof.”

  11. I think I have something that fits this – the intro from another WIP (I swear I have finished stories! And a plan… or at least a “plan” – honest!) :

    I was about to die.

    This was the only coherent thought running through my mind. The world around me tilted and spun in a blurred echo of images. There was light. There was dark. There was nothing. There was the dragon. There were sounds, meaningless sounds, piled one on top of the other like waves crashing against the shore. I was crying or perhaps it was raining. I was cold, very cold. Something was holding my wrists painfully above my head. Trying to pull them free only made the pain worse. The dragon was very close.

    I was about to die.

    The dragon roared, a white hot sound, and suddenly I was lying face down on bare stone. More meaningless sounds, now gentle and comforting, ebbed and flowed above me and around me. I felt the touch of warm, leathery hide and the world spun and tilted violently as I was picked up and placed on my feet. I stumbled back down to my hands and knees, vomited, and then fell to one side. The dragon roared again. More thoughts forced their way through the fog in my mind. Did dragons play with their food before killing it? Did they kill their food before they started eating it? I tried to crawl away from the dragon but only managed to move a few feet before passing out in a muddy puddle.

    I floated for a time in a nothingness that was gradually replaced by the sensations of reality. I was cold and had hazy memories of being colder. I took a breath and became aware of a soft surface beneath me. My mind was still wrapped in fog but it was fading and I could almost think clearly again. I lay still for a moment with my eyes closed and began to hope the dragon, the terror, the cold and the unforgiving stone had been nothing but a bad dream.

    Then I felt the cold steel bands around my neck, wrists, and ankles as well as the heavy chain that linked them together. I felt a dull pain that seemed to be everywhere as if I had a fever. I forced my eyes open and saw that I was lying on two large, brightly colored pillows. After a moment my sluggish mind began to comprehend that my clothes were in tatters and I was covered in a layer of dried mud. A moment more I realized I was not alone.

    I forced my eyes up to meet the dragon’s gaze. It was smaller than I expected with a body about the size of a large draft horse and a gracefully slender build for its size. Its hide was black, but not the color black, more an absence of color and reflected light as if the dragon were a shadow come to life. Its eyes glowed a deep red from within a vaguely reptilian face that seemed to fade in and out of focus. It was a very improbable dragon that became more improbable yet when it sighed impatiently and spoke in a low, halting voice. “You are conscious. You will stand, please, and I will assess your functionality.”

    1. This seemed more like a “something’s happening”—or rather “something’s happening!!!—opening to me, but you’ve hooked me. I want the rest of the story!

  12. When I pulled up to the gig, the sign read “Lambada, Limbo, and Lamaze”. I briefly reflected on the moral necessity of murdering my agent.l, but I needed the money. So I shouldered my kit and went in.
    I was not prepared for the things I saw that night, but my bastard of an agent was right about two important things: it was a night that I will never forget, and that if I just kept up a slow, steady beat, I’d be fine.

  13. Something I have been toying with off and on for the past year.

    My world changed forever my third spring.

    It was late spring, and I was going out to hunt for greens. At least that is what I had told my dam. She was busy with my new sister and just wanted me out from under foot. I’d wanted to go up the cliff walls instead of down since autumn when one of my male cousins had told me about the holes in the ground; the holes where the wind blew across and whistled, giving our valley home its name.

    I had collected a few handfuls of greens, even some that I barely recognized, but had not found the holes. In the back of my mind, I wondered if Gar’len had been teasing me. He was popular and liked to tease me, to get the other young males to laugh at me. Privately I thought that he would have to travel far from Whistling Valley to find a mate. No female who knew him would partner with him, even if he was a handsome figure.

    I heard a faint whistling sound behind me and though for a moment that I had walked past a hole. But when I turned I didn’t see a hole, instead I saw a shining monster in the sky. It whistled as it came closer and I saw two heads above the gleaming body. Panic gripped me, forcing out all thought. Dropping my basket, I ran. I tried to run to the cliff edge, to get off the plateau. The beast followed me, diving down to block my retreat. Heart racing, I stopped and looked to either side. Away from the edge, there was a mound of rocks. Perhaps I could hide in the rocks and wait it out. If it was hungry enough, it would leave to find easier prey.

    I was halfway there when something tangled my legs and I fell. I saw something that looked like a braided vine wrapped around one leg. When I kicked at it with my free foot, it stuck like tree sap. I pushed harder, fighting that vine, as the monster came closer. A large hunting net, made from those weird vines, fell over me.

    I saw the beast land and snarled. I still had my knife. I wasn’t going to let it have me without a fight. Getting to the knife was hard with the vines sticking to my skin. I did manage to get it free and was trying to cut my out when two figures came from the beast. Thinking that they were trying to escape the beast, I yelled for them to run. They made strange sounds, almost like laughter and kept coming. When they came close enough for me to get a better look at them, I stopped cutting and stared.

    They looked something like us, but not like us at the same time. They were flat faced, too broad across the shoulders, and too thin in the chest. They wore clothing made from the skin of a strange beast all over their bodies, even though it was a mild day. They smelled wrong too. They smelled of sour sweat, something floral, and had an undertone that reminded me of our old cook pot.

  14. I know we’re on These People! now, but I wanted to share the best Wait, What? opening I read recently, from a Charlaine Harris novel (Dead Over Heels): “My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.” Three interesting and distinct elements in one sentence.

    1. It does have a bit of “These People!” too, however; I want to see a bit more of the bodyguard who mows the lawn in her pink bikini.

  15. While we waited for the police two of them got into an argument about the best shape for the clapper of a bell, one of them started telling Japanese fairy tales about how to make bells sound really good, and two of them argued over what had happened during the course of ringing Double Norwich Court Major. They were not talking about the sudden drip of blood down the rope but about which of them had made the first mistake conducting. Sannah intervened by saying their mistake had been to have two conductors in the first place.

  16. “Why don’t you have some self-respect and be quiet!” I finally snapped at him, as he continued to make a fuss.

    I really do not like rude people, and you meet so many of them in my profession.

    Okay, I get it. He probably had plans for the evening — chatting up the cute brunette by the bar, or something. And, yes, my inserting a knife into his heart certainly messed those up. But don’t tell me that this is the first time he ever had to deal with a change of plans. Stuff happens, we all just have to cope, and there is no need to throw a temper tantrum about it.

    And to top it off, the jerk managed to get a bloodstain on my cocktail dress. How petty can you get?

  17. Thinking of an example, but have had – and have – just enough of a headache not to give it a try right now. This may be the closest fit, from something I was never pleased with:

    Dearest Laura:

    I hope you can read this. They put the IV in my right hand and it’s hard to write. Dave will stay with me until you get here, but he hasn’t arrived yet and I fear he’ll be too late. The nurse just changed my IV bag and found white dust on he window sill. It’s still light, but Viola’s coming and I can’t even scream

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