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. “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: