Knowing how to introduce characters so that they stick in readers’ minds is a skill. Here are six techniques to create memorable first impressions:
6 ways to introduce your characters:
- Use backstory to reveal relevant character history
- Introduce a character through another POV
- Show typical action
- Introduce a character on the cusp of change
- Make characters introduce themselves directly
- Write a memorable, unique character description
Let’s examine each of these character introduction ideas, with examples:
1: Use backstory to reveal relevant character history
Telling a character’s history gives readers a sense of their formative experiences. A person’s past helps us understand their motivations, their psychology.
If you choose this approach, there’s a caveat: avoid info dumps. Keep backstory relevant to your character’s story arc and their present circumstances.
The opening of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield is a good example.
Example of backstory introduction: David Copperfield
In Dickens’ autobiography-style story, the narrator introduces himself by telling the reader about the death of his father only six months before his birth:
I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or ‘there by’, as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, p. 4. Full text available here.
This introduction is effective on two levels:
- Due to the tragic and personal nature of David’s backstory, we empathise with the character
- The introduction is relevant – David proceeds to tell of his mother’s remarriage and how he is sent, at his step-father’s insistence, to live with their housekeeper’s family – a significant, key plot point
Dickens thus keeps David’s backstory relevant to core plot developments, while also reeling the reader in with emotive details of personal history.
2: Introduce a character through another POV
As in life, fictional characters’ reputations sometimes precede them.
This is especially true for villains. Showing other characters talking about a dubious character before they arrive builds suspense.
Example of introducing characters via others’ testimony: Heart of Darkness
In Joseph Conrad’s novella about the brutalities of colonization in Africa, Heart of Darkness, Conrad introduces Kurtz (the violent head of an ivory trading-post) in stages.
First, the narrator Marlow hears from a colonial accountant that Kurtz is ill:
There were rumours that a very important station was in jeopardy, and its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. [The accountant] hoped it was not true. Mr. Kurtz was … I felt weary and irritable. Hang Kurtz, I thought. I interrupted him by saying I had heard of Mr. Kurtz on the coast. ‘Ah! So they talk of him down there,’ he murmured to himself. Then he began again, assuring me Mr. Kurtz was the best agent he had, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 30
Conrad builds up to Marlow’s first encounter with Kurtz. After this glowing description, Marlow meets a more impartial Russian adventurer who has met Kurtz.
The Russian paints a more sinister picture:
It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions. ‘What can you expect?’ he burst out; ‘he came to [the locals] with thunder and lightning, you know – and they had never seen anything like it – and very terrible.
Heart of Darkness, p. 79.
The traveler tells Marlow about a time Kurtz threatened to shoot him if he didn’t hand over a stash of ivory he had poached. Thus we see a darker image of Kurtz’s character before seeing him in person.
Like Conrad, you can introduce a character through others’ perspectives and build suspense.
3: Show a typical action
Introducing characters with actions is simple and effective. We may learn a character’s passions, hobbies, occupation, or another detail relevant to their story.
Example of action-based introduction: Mrs Dalloway
Take, for example, our first encounter with Clarissa Dalloway, the title character of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p. 1.
The sense of purpose, the fact Clarissa decides to buy the flowers herself, shows her take-charge nature.
Woolf also shows Clarissa through the perspectives of passersby. Woolf thus combines a typical action for Clarissa (taking pondering walks) with others’ viewpoints (another introduction technique).
For example, Clarissa’s neighbour’s thoughts intrude on the narration:
A charming woman, Scrope Purvis thought her (knowing her as one does know people who live next door to one in Westminster); a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness.
Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, pp. 1-2.
Woolf introduces a little backstory (Scrope Purvis’ mention of Clarissa’s illness), incorporating yet another element of introduction (backstory). Yet note how subtly a brief bit of backstory is slipped in.
In the space of two pages, Woolf thus effectively combines several of the ways to write character introductions mentioned in this post.
When you introduce a character, show actions that:
- Illustrate a character’s nature or temperament
- Bring them into contact with others who can flesh out the reader’s impression further
In addition, include clear physical description (by the second page, we know Clarissa has a light, bird-like quality and is over fifty and pale-skinned).
Start profiling your story’s cast
Create detailed character profiles in easy steps so you know who each character is before you introduce them.START
4: Introduce a character on the cusp of change
Showing a person on the cusp of change is one of the suspense-building options among how to introduce characters. .
Showing a character in a dilemma, about to make a life-changing decision, propels your story forwards.
Take Zadie Smith’s introduction of the character Archie Jones in her novel White Teeth.
Example of cusp-of-change introduction: White Teeth
At the start of Zadie Smith’s debut novel, Archie Jones, recently divorced, attempts to kill himself in his car:
Early in the morning, late in the century, Criklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 Jannuary 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him.
Zadie Smith, White Teeth, p. 3.
This strong introduction conveys Archie’s psychological state, his despair and decision to end his life.
Smith introduces dark humour when Mo, a local halal butcher, interrupts Archie because he’s parked in Mo’s delivery loading bay:
‘Mo advanced upon Archie’s car, pulled out the towels that were sealing the gap in the driver’s window, and pushed it down five inches with brute, bullish force.
“Do you hear that, mister? We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place is halal. Kosher, understand?’
Smith, White Teeth, p. 7.
Through this interaction Smith shows a melting pot of characters in her London setting. We are intrigued, wondering why Archie wants to end his life.
5: Make characters introduce themselves directly
This type of character introduction is particularly common in first person novels where the protagonist is also the narrator.
The narrator Taylor Greer in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Bean Trees is one example.
Example of a character introducing themselves: The Bean Trees
The Bean Trees opens thus:
I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there. About nineteen people congregated during the time it took for Norman Strick to walk up to the Courthouse and blow the whistle for the volunteer fire department.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees, p. 1.
Kingsolver starts with a strong emotion: Fear.
The character introduction conveys Taylor’s rural background by describing an incident involving a tractor.
Over the course of the novel, we learn more about Taylor’s fears (for example, her fear of falling pregnant like many of the girls back home in rural Kentucky).
Taylor has to confront her fears when she finds and adopts an abandoned baby girl. Fear (and overcoming it) is thus central to the novel.
So it’s fitting that at the start of the novel, Taylor recounts a fear-inducing event back home.
When you introduce characters directly, as first-person narrators, make them:
- Reveal their personalities – in Taylor’s case, she is revealed as fearful, a fear she is forced to confront as the story unfolds
- Believable: Taylor’s speech is natural. The way she adds ‘I’m not lying’ to her tall tale adds personality and an element of self-awareness
6: Write a memorable, unique physical description
When introducing characters, give readers the detail they need to picture them.
In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, we get a precise image of two co-travelers, the central characters.
Example of vivid character introduction via description: Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck introduces the simple, large Lennie and the small, shrewd George with this description:
Both were dressed in denim trousers and in denim coats with brass buttons. Both wore black, shapeless hats and both carried tight blanket rolls slung over their shoulders. The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose. Behind him walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws.’
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, p. 8.
Steinbeck’s detailed description begins with George and Lennie’s clothing.
From here, he describes contrasting features, George’s fineness and chiseled face and Lennie’s ‘shapelessness’.
He also describes both with posture and movement. Lennie drags his feet ‘the way a bear drags his paws’.
Shortly after this description, when they reach a clearing, Lennie ‘flings’ himself down, while George steps ‘nervously’.
The way both characters move matches their temperaments and the preceding physical description.
When introducing a character visually, include:
- Identifying dress
- Physical features (their facial features, body type, etc.)
- Any characteristic movement (e.g. Lennie’s bear-like gait)
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