Hi There!

How Do You Do?

So . . . what’s the best way to introduce a new character?

“Whatever works” is unhelpful. So I went spelunking for some examples out of my own stuff, to try to analyze.

A recent addition to my usual:

~~~

Rael spotted the four of them, with an interesting mix of body language. Joke stiff and affronted. Lenny’s head swinging back and forth, trying to watch the others. Tall blonde and handsome grinning. The younger one with brown hair had his hand over his face. Talking.

“Ice, swear to The One I can’t take you anywhere!”

“Not my fault I keep getting accosted by beautiful women . . .”

~~~

 

So, Ice is tall blonde and handsome, used to attracting women, and brashly responding in an inappropriate manner. His so-far-unnamed companion is younger, brown haired, and gets embarrassed moderately easily.

This all works because of the emotions on display. Joke, who is female, affronted and stiff. Ice grinning, his friend embarrassed. It doesn’t read like bare descriptions.

In fact, the POV character, the late arriving Rael, with decades of intel work behind her, would realistically have noticed a great deal more. But having her mentally list weight, physical fitness, quality of suit and shoes, and lack of obvious weapons would read awkwardly and slow down the scene that really needs to move on to the important stuff.

It’s the barest sketch, but quite fine for this scene. And introducing a Character demanding (and getting!) stories of his own.

 

~~~

The man was trudging, head down, staggering a bit. Oblivious. Until Xen stepped in his path.

“Hi. You look like you could use some water.”

The man blinked, nodded as he rocked to a halt. “Yeah.” Raspy, almost a croak

Xen dropped his sack of food and water jugs and pulled the cork of the half empty one. “Take sips until your stomach can handle more. I’m Xen.”

The man took the jug warily, took a sip, swallowed. “I didn’t know there were natives here. Umm, I’m Dr. Mitchel Watson.”

Sip. “Mitch.”

Sip. “How did you learn to speak English?”

Xen snickered. “I’m not native. I’ve only been here three months.”

Sip. The man looked him up and down in disbelief. Hung up on the scar down Xen’s chest. “Well, yeah they hit you with the lightning rod, but where’d you get the pants?”

“Ah, you’re a city boy. I killed the deer, skinned it, tanned the hide, cut it, and sewed it.”

Dr. Watson straightened. “I . . . see. Well, did you set that fire on the mountain?”

“Nope. I was going down to check on it . . . so, do you have a little girl named Cali?”

“What!” The man jerked around. “You piece of shit! Three months my ass. What have you done to Cali, you fucking government goon? Are you the Bushy’s hit man? Damn you!”

“No! I . . .” Xen ducked a punch, tripped over his sack and the man jumped on him, hands going for his throat.

With not a clue how to fight, Xen had him face down in the grass, with an arm twisted up behind his back in seconds.

“According to Cali . . . Stop cursing and listen, will you?”

“If they hadn’t killed my mofa I’d . . .”

Xen shoved his face in the grass.

~~~

 

Well, no physical description at all here. But Mitch is a city dweller, the father of a little girl named Cali, suspicious, and quick to lose his temper, at least where a stranger talking about his daughter is concerned. Not an experienced fighter. All wrapped up in a bit of action, it gives a reasonably good picture of his personality.

Readers will fill in their own mental picture. A tired man, out of water, stumbling toward a signal fire. Concerned about his daughter. Probably looks like their dad . . .

 

~~~

He barely heard the new voice. Something about “Hell” and then “RIGHT NOW!!!!” came through loud and clear. Bodies rolled off him and he heaved in a couple of deep breaths before he stood up to face the music.

“I see we have once again failed to grasp the basics.” The man surveying them was elderly but upright. Medium height, a bit on the thin side, both hands draped casually on a cane. “Edge, when capable of standing, please recite rule thirteen. These youngsters need to learn these things, so they will not add to my burden of, well, you and your cronies.”

~~~

 

Ah! We have an Authority Figure. Not physically imposing, but capable of breaking up a fight with voice alone. Don’t say it, show it.

 

~~~

The Black Horse guards were watching, with their shields up more strongly than most Oners . . . but there was a blank space . . . Well, maybe no one was there, but she didn’t remember any object that would have them avoiding the spot. It . . . bothered her.

She turned, and stopped.

A boy was standing in that blank spot. A shield so hard he didn’t even register as a living thing. No, not a boy, a young man. He looked, at first glance, about Paer’s age, but he was too serious and intent to be called a boy. Wary and dangerous. His hazel eyes were cold, angry. Black hair, pale skin. Handsome in a sharp boned untamed fashion.

~~~

 

All right! I got a description and a name in there. Along with the bad attitude. One of my favorite characters, attitude and all.

But the description and the name aren’t enough. The reader feels like he knows the character from the emotional language. Serious, intent, wary, dangerous, cold, angry, untamed. That is Ra’d. Who cares what he looks like?

 

~~~

“I rule the world!” Wolfgang Oldham whipped the interface helmet from his head and fell over onto his back. “I am all powerful! Fear me!” He gathered a glowing ball of fire between his hands.

“I’m terrified, dear. Have you done your homework?”

Wolfgang grinned up at his mother. She couldn’t see the fire at all. Even the twins could just barely see it in the dark. “All done before I even made it home. I hope college is more challenging than high school.” He put a hand down casually, off the rug, onto the limestone tiled floor and let the energy seep into the ground.

“I suspect so, and while you’re unplugged, why don’t you run check the mail. We ought to be getting replies back from colleges soon.”

“Yes, ma’am, sir, ma’am!” He jumped to his feet, saluted and galloped out the door.

“Please, please, please. West Point. I want to go to West Point like Dad.” He kept his voice down so the neighbors wouldn’t think he was weird. Weirder.

Of course he’d applied at other places as well, but he’d made no bones about his favorite. Nothing, though. Well, something from Healthy Kids. He eyed it dubiously. Not more tests! Once a year was enough and anyway, he was sixteen. A year and a half away from official adulthood.

He peeled it open and read it as he walked back inside.

“Ugg, Mom, Healthy Kids wants me to come in for some more tests. Gotta get their last vials of blood before I fly the coop.”

“I hope they don’t expect you to miss any school.” Mom was in full cooking mode now, green apron clashing with maroon kitchen, three pots on the stove. Chicken, green beans, potatoes.

The twins came tearing through the door, laughing and talking about something that had happened at soccer practice. They were his parent’s real kids. Some of the first ever vat grown, because of the problems his mother had, but still ninety-nine point nine percent genetically theirs. At least they’d chosen the same two standard suites of selected genes that he had, so the twins were sort of barely related to him. They hadn’t gone for the two special suites, which, no matter how much he wished he had someone he could talk to about it, he did understand. Thirteen years ago the test kids with those special suites had become political hot potatoes.

If only the sensation seeking media hadn’t started calling them “gods” it wouldn’t have been so bad.

~~~

 

Character introductions and world building often go hand in hand, especially when, like this example, it’s the start of a book. Here’s the main character, a teen-age boy, smart, likes electronic games . . . did something strange . . . Mention of vat grown kids, with standard genetic suites . . . and special suites that are getting a lot of negative attention.  You see both the character, and the world. I got his name in there up front, even if a bit awkwardly. The rest comes as things happen. Not huge things, but establishing life in the future, and a boy with a looming problem.

Anyway, what to take away from this “how to describe characters” lesson? Get some action and emotions in there, show what the characters are doing, and what they are feeling while they are doing it. You can use the action to build a picture in the reader’s mind.

She stretched and huffed in irritation that she couldn’t reach the top shelf.

He grinned as he hefted the ax, a bit light weight for his preferences, but it would do for killing those pathetic Orcs, there were less than a dozen of them.

Oh, you can get some descriptions in there. She can sweep the brown hair out of her face, as she wished Mommy would get back soon. He can scratch the dark stubble on his chin with the hook on the end of his left arm.

You can put in any details you think the reader needs to know.

But never leave out the action and emotion.

 

A recent short story:

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 comments

  1. ok lemme try:

    After loading the dropships, I got seconded to helping Sergeant Menedez get the other recruits secured. They weren’t quite used to having to strap down all their gear and then the harnesses for the dropship seats were a little more than what commercial and transport shuttles used. Once they were good- and the sergeant checked my work- I got locked down myself and the sergeant did his own. One recruit, a Brazilian named Oliveira, actually crossed himself as the dropship lurched when the launch rack picked it up. Several of the dozen trainees looked worried or sick as the dropship faintly wobbled, and I wondered how hot of a drop the pilots were going to do.

    1. and yeah, Oliveira is gonna be recurring for awhile… he gets to be the ‘straight man’ the first time they get a 3-day pass.

    2. If the POV guy hasn’t been previously introduced, this is a good place to have someone address him by name. You could add some internal thoughts, but that may not be your writing style.

  2. From The Demon Slayers, a meeting:

    A thirty-foot-long missile flashed upward out of the dimensional gate at a forty-five-degree angle. It crashed through the tree canopy and continued at about three hundred miles per hour. A second after it cleared the trees its engine fired, it sounded like a thunderclap. Then the roaring, ripping sound of it clawing for altitude. After two more seconds, it broke the sound barrier. The sonic boom echoed for miles. Birds flapped from the trees, deer and wildlife awoke and ran away in panic.

    Erwin and Guruh were shocked from their meditative reverie by the loud crash of the engine firing and the sonic boom. Guruh dumped Erwin off her lap and bolted out of the thicket, heedless of the thorns catching her fur. There she was confronted by a metallic thing the size and shape of an ogre, and a warrior woman in an impractical black and white dress. Guruh gathered her legs to spring and kill them both.

    “Hi,” said the ogre thing, waving. “You guys order a pizza?”

    That speech was so incongruous that Guruh stumbled to a stop, her snarl turned into a confused grunt. “What?”

    “Alice, Jeez!” exclaimed the blonde haired woman, rolling her eyes. “Hi, wolf lady. This idiot is Alice, I’m Nike. You called us.”

  3. Damkina paused on the hill above the city looking at the vast wealth below her. Here the great river met the sea. Nearly two miles wide it tumbled it’s way past the Capitol. Her brown eyes took in it’s expanse and the city it bordered. She shivered and pulled her desert made robes around her black hair and her slim body as the chill of a sea breeze tugged at the blue fabric. Blue the color of the priesthood of the Lady of Rains. Did these people know her? Did they know the wealth she poured past them every day? At last she lifted her eyes to the sea, steeling herself. She had never seen it before, but had heard of it. It stretched before her like the desert from her home oasis. Truely they were blessed indeed. Resolutely she turned back to her path. the Lady’s business would not wait simply for her to gaze upon the blessings she had given these City Dwellers and their Sultan.

    1. The description is a little heavy handed, but workable. She’s unlikely to think of the color of her eyes and hair, unless for instance as a thought about the locals different appearance. “. . . pulled her desert made robes over her hair, so much darker than the dull brown hair of the few people she’d passed the last few days. A few had even had odd blue eyes, rather than normal brown.”

      Some of the “hers” and “shes” probably need to be swapped out for “The Lady” or “the Lady of Rains” just to be clear.

        1. If you want to use narrator voice, maybe start with a overhead description of the land, the Lady of Rains, zooming in on the figure walking toward the city. A woman in the traditional desert garb, dyed in the blue of the Priesthood of the Lady. A thin thing, with big brown eyes and black hair. Add all the description you want.

          ***Then a scene break***

          Damkina paused on the hill above the city looking at the vast wealth below her.

          1. This being an example of world building and character introduction that *might* be better done separately.

            Always write *your* story, in *your* voice. Not what someone else would write.

      1. Yes. Remember the character’s interests govern the thoughts.

        I’m working on a story where the heroine thinks of how she looks while staring in the mirror, but — she’s desperately hoping the mirror will not say, some day, that she’s Fairest of Them All — for the obvious reasons. Hence, I have to mix actual description with disparaging thoughts.

        If the looks do matter, multiple points of view help — since all characters are then seen from the outside. But you need to do it quickly before the readers’ mental picture is set.

  4. The door chime sounded, and a denim-clad teenager came in, glanced left and right and walked straight to the counter. “Hi,” he blurted. “Do you have any books about werewolves? The real ones, not the movie stuff.” The stocky boy rocked from side to side, making Lelia wary.

    “Yes, sir, over here in the non-fiction section.” He trailed behind her, crowding too close when she stopped. “The three on the end. The thick one’s a little academic.”

    “Thanks. I’ve got that one, but I’ll take the other two,” he pushed his tan knit cap back, revealing twigs of red hair. “Um do you carry wolf stuff, like jewelry, cuffs? My uncle said he’d found a steel cuff here with a wolf on it.”

    “Yes, sir, but at the moment all we have in stock is silver. We’ll be getting some steel, iron, and copper things next month.”

    The young man flinched at the word silver. “No, thanks, Silver . . . I’m allergic.”

  5. Introduction of Leo intertwined with an info dump:

    Leo thought back over the activities of the past month as he settled onto his work pillow. The careful search for the resonance of a compatible world…the last minute adjusting of supplies and then teleshifting the base…the impatient quarantine while checking for serious hazards…then, finally, what everyone was twitching for, the exuberant departure of explorers into nose-on-the-ground study. Now it was time to get a feel for how much progress the team had made. Leo’s whiskers twitched as his comp scrolled through the list of status reports.
    Biology, hmm, seven nines standard. Well, that was pretty obvious: the air smelled fresh, the water was pure, and the nearby fields abounded in tasty little creatures…not that he knew that officially. Twitch.
    Technology, hmm, artificial satellites, no problem. Trace radioactive decay products, fang it, the natives were playing around with nucleonics. Fortunately, no evidence of meletech. Hmm, pretty heavy industrial development. His engineers were rolling in ecstasy over all of the big machinery. Leo gave a soft purr. Ah, here’s a link. Click. Hmm, “large petrochemical electromagnetic iron rail tractor”. Click. 400 thousand pounds weight, hmm, about the same as the entire base. More than 150 thousand pounds traction, my, that’ll drag some elephants. I wonder who was the lucky furball who got to check it out. Prrr.
    Before he went into administration he had always liked engineering. The next team to shift in from Meolan would have to include more engineers. But that would be months from now…even with a tuned base for a beacon, an interstellar shift took a lot of energy. And given their limited stock of q-bits reports home had to be brief.
    Leo loved exploration. Each new world presented its own exhilarating twists and turns as you chased it into its den. Just to find out what was there. Assuming the target world was ignorant of meletech, stealth was easy. And on this world the Meolanese looked just like a common domesticated species. The native humans seemed friendly enough.
    Ah, focus on the status reports. Back. Back. Scroll.
    Linguistics, oh my, dozens identified so far. That’s going to be a tussle. Hmm. Ah, Amber was well on her way to becoming expert in the local patois. Probably another week and they could imbue everyone. Good.
    Psychology…no report? Who was psychology? Oh, yes, Patches. What a scatter-brained egghead.

  6. Opening section to a story I’ve been working on:

    My name is Mark Nowak, and I’m an asshole.

    I sometimes make the mistake of getting Maggie on that subject. She’ll happily go on and on about it. For hours. My sister seriously needs to get herself a hobby or something.

    Because of Maggie’s lectures, I have a deep and abiding understanding of what it is to be an asshole. The question consuming my mind right now is just how much of an asshole do I want to be?

    I mean, there’s a spectrum to these things, and different circumstances can affect how much assholery is involved in an action. Right?

    Let us suppose, hypothetically speaking, that someone wants to trespass upon my employer’s property, and I’m the one keeping them out by refusing to open the front gate. This barely registers on the asshole scale. This hypothetical person has no legitimate business with my employer, who isn’t even here, and one of my duties as the live-in groundskeeper is to keep people from wandering into his vacation home and making off with the copper pipes and fancy toilets.

    However, if we change the hypothetical circumstances a bit, the level of assholery can increase. For example, suppose that hypothetical person is feeling threatened for some reason and wants to come in to feel safer. I’d tell that person to hike ten miles to the county sheriff’s office, which is, admittedly, a douchey move. It is, however, something that I am still okay with doing, since I have no idea if this guy is really being threatened, and the toilets must be protected.

    But, let’s suppose this hypothetical person is under obvious threat. Suppose, for example, a large hypothetical monster is preparing to attack this hypothetical person, and he really, really wants to come inside before he becomes kibble to a monster the size of a small car. I’d have to be a huge grade A asshole to refuse entry to him, wouldn’t I? Suppose it isn’t one hypothetical person, but a hypothetical group of people. A large group, twenty or thirty or so. And most of them are women and children. And the hypothetical car-sized monster isn’t alone, but has a whole pack of his brothers and sisters along for the buffet. That is a hypothetical situation that goes well beyond the level of assholery I’d be willing to commit. I’d let them in and damn the toilets.

    But.

    What if this group of hypothetical people aren’t actually people? What if they’re, suppose, also monsters? They are wearing clothes and using tools, but definitely not human. And going by the quality of said clothing (animal skins) and style of said tools (stone tipped spears), they’re not likely to be any more friendly than the monstrous rhino-lizard-things threatening them.

    Where would refusing to let them inside the wall fall on the asshole spectrum? Honestly, I’m stumped.

    In case you haven’t figured it out yet, not only are these hypothetical people not human, they’re also not hypothetical.

    It’s all really happening. Right here. In front of me. And I’m an asshole. Because I’m not going to open the gate.

  7. I’ll give it a go. Here’s an excerpt from my WIP:

    Frank didn’t think much of Oscar Davilia at first glance. With his skinny jeans, Mister Rodgers cardigan, and John Lennon sunglasses – which he insisted on wearing indoors – he looked to Frank every inch the stereotypical West Coast hipster. All that was missing (thankfully) was the man-bun. The air of smug superiority he gave off and the way he looked down his nose at Frank, which the CEO managed to do despite being a full head shorter than Frank’s six feet, didn’t approve the investigator’s opinion of him.

    Davilia’s bodyguard, Rothman, on the other hand…

    On the surface, he was just another overpriced Blackwater-wannabe rent-a-cop posing as a bodyguard: shaved head, no neck, bulging tattoo-covered biceps that were barely contained by the sleeves of his black polo shirt, 5.11 tactical pants that likewise strained to sheath his massive legs, and a tricked-out Roland Special Glock in a kydex appendix rig over what Frank was sure were washboard abs. He could have passed for three hundred pounds of dumb muscle if not for his soulless eyes, eyes that were sizing up Frank the way a wolf checks out a sheep. Rothman didn’t scare Frank, not exactly, but he did make the P.I. wish he was carrying something with more authority than a .45. Something like an automatic shotgun, or a radio with an Apache gunship on the other end.

  8. The opening of my current WIP in which I break every rule there is.

    ***

    Karin had broken up with him a week before Christmas.

    At that moment, full of sick anger and pain, he had thrown the bracelet he had bought for her, which had cost him more than he could comfortably afford, at her before he had stormed out.
    Later he regretted that. He could have returned it. Later still he accused her, in his mind, of timing the breakup with the expectation that he would make such a grand—and expensive—gesture.

    He wouldn’t ask for it back. He knew it, and he knew that she knew it. By the time the wounds she’d made in his soul had scabbed over enough to brave that conversation she would have sold it, he was sure. It was gone, gone like everything else he had given her, the money, the gifts, the last year of his life.

    All gone.

    And yet Christmas, truth to tell, hadn’t been that bad. He’d driven up to see his parents and their response to Karin’s conspicuous absence had been gentle sympathy and—he suspected—a bit of relief. They’d never liked her much.

    His kid sister, who had her new husband in tow, a burly former football player turned boat salesman, had been too focused on her pregnancy to comment on Karin’s absence or even notice it. Every topic of conversation had to be turned to how it would affect the baby, as if anyone could forget that the she held in her belly the winning ticket in the first grandchild sweepstakes.

    The day had been surprisingly relaxing. The boat salesman—not a bad guy, all things considered—had talked football with father, and kid sister had talked prenatal vitamins with mother. He ate too much and let the familiar surroundings lull him back in time to a place where Karin had never existed.

    So that was Christmas, and he got through it okay, just fine, no problem.

    But now it was New Years Eve.

  9. I didn’t write this, but it’s always been a pretty good example, I’ve found. The narrator describes meeting the lesser god of evil who once slaughtered thousands of her race as easily as if they were flies. I don’t know if anyone here will recognize him or not- it’s FanFiction for a rather niche show.

    I mean, this is someone whose name is synonymous with pure wickedness—with fearsome destruction and utter disregard for any that stand in the way of his dark goals. And yes, I’m sure all those things are true, and he’s the very definition of wickedness, but…

    …he has the gall to act like he’s not! Accuse him of his obvious crimes and he’ll just pull a faux-innocent look (as if a creature with such a black soul could even pretend to be blameless!) and ask you if he’s really as bad as all that! It’s shameless!

    And he doesn’t even have the decency to look the way he should. I don’t really know what I imagined when I first heard his name spoken in hushed tones as “the detested Xellos” during lessons… but I can tell you one thing, it didn’t look like… that.

    He should’ve had shadowy familiars or coarse, wolf-like fur, or… or a noxious black smoke surrounding him or something! Instead he just had this silly purple hair and this even sillier smile. This was a creature that slaughtered thousands of my race with barely a thought… and he looked more like a twit than a monster!
    He wore a… well, it was almost a black cloak. A black cloak would’ve been appropriately villainous, but this wasn’t even quite there. It wasn’t a starless-night black, it was more of… a dark grey—the type of color that people wear when they don’t want the dirt to show. He wore white gloves—like the kind that magicians wear. He had a staff on the ground next to him with a rounded gem in the middle of it—kind of like the one I wear on my robe except for the fact that while mine is a peaceful shade of blue, his was blood red. Smaller stones of the same color were on the clasp of his cloak. Perhaps the color of those gems was the only appropriate thing about his appearance.
    And that voice—good GOD. The less said there, the better.

    Expectations are described- shadowy familiars, wolf-like fur, everything that should accompany such a villain; only to be discarded. His appearance is rather given in negatives: not obviously evil, not accompanied by dark servants, his outfit is frustratingly mundane and non-villainous. His hair is offhandedly described as both purple and silly, unimportant. His accessories are used to contrast those of our narrator, blood colored gems instead of peaceful blue; while also informing us a little of what she wears.
    And the closing line about his voice leaves a lot open for the imagination while still conveying enough.

  10. He paged through the vignettes with a slight crease in his brow and a rich, smooth cup of coffee wafting a welcome. Once or twice he nodded in approval, the crease vanishing, then gazed out the window as dawn’s light dappled the trees and his screen with a buttery-gold wash of light. “Oh, yes,” he murmured to himself, “these will do.” He jotted four names on his notepad, humming happily.

    — Reader reaction, the welcome converse of an author’s story. The posting was illustrative, and the responses quite good. Thanks to you all.

Comments are closed.