Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Creating a Strong First Impression

Tournament roleplaying is a different experience entirely from playing in a home campaign. For four hours you share an experience with a group of people, usually strangers, telling a story, and then you just go your separate ways. This means every game you must introduce your character from scratch. After hundreds of introductions, I learned just how important a character’s first impression is.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. – Will Rogers

Woman with yellow floral shirtMaking a first impression is as important for your characters as it is in the real world. If you portray them incorrectly, trying to correct your reader’s false impression is like digging a hole in mud, ineffective and messy. To prevent missteps, you need to understand your character and which of their traits are essential for your story. Once you have your trait list, determine which traits are the most important to give a feel for who your character is and which traits are critical to highlight at their introduction.

girl with glasses

Almost everyone makes a good first impression, but only a few will make a good, lasting impression. – Sonya Parker

The goal of your character introduction is to provide a strong enough impression that your reader will pull a share of work with you as they read. You want your audience to fill in actions and tone because they know your character.

The moment you introduce a character has more weight than any other in the story. You need to choose a situation that will emphasize the character as well as move the plot forward. A character’s first impression is created by a convergence of seven things.

Name: Names are powerful. As soon as you give a character a name an image will start to form in the reader’s mind. What do you see when I say Francisca? If I say Frankie does the image change? The first instant your character steps into existence is the use of their name. Be sure the name you use conveys the type of character you intend.

girl standing by carousel horses at sunsetSetting: Setting may not be directly linked to a character, but it will influence how the reader perceives a character. By having your character meet someone on a dark, ominous night, you create a subtle promise that something dark or ominous will happen with or to that character. The setting during the introduction hints at the character’s future.

First Mention: Sometimes a character isn’t in the scene when they are introduced. Be sure the first mention of the character reveals something important about them and not just what they are doing.

First Action: A character’s first action shouldn’t be wasted. As a writer, you choose the exact moment a character is on stage. Make sure their first action conveys something about who they are or who they will be.

First dialogue: The first time your character speaks is a powerful tool. Don’t waste it on pointless filler. Have the words make a statement.

Couple's legs by lake at sunsetFirst Interaction: How a person interacts with the world is the most important aspect of who they are. It doesn’t matter if you are a generous person in your thoughts if you never give anything to anyone. Interactions in a story not only create tension, they are a tool to reveal more than what a character thinks or says. Choose the first interaction to reveal something about who the character is or who they want to be.

First Interaction with MC: A story is not about one person. The cast of characters creates the tension of the story through competing goals and disagreements. These secondary characters provide a context that allows your reader to understand your main character and are critical in helping your reader connect or disconnect with your main character.

Some Tips

Cliche spelled in Scrabble tilesLeveraging Clichés: You want to paint a picture of your character in their introductory moment, revealing as much of their personality as briefly as you can. The quickest way to form this picture is to use an existing frame of reference. For instance, I could describe a huge, gray creature with thick legs and flapping ears or I could say the creature looked like an elephant without a trunk. In this case, the elephant is the frame of reference. For character personalities using a cliché provides a frame of reference.  When you use a cliché, your time can be spent on how your character differs from the cliché instead of building up his personality from scratch.

Don’t Sacrifice Your Secondaries: The secondary characters in your story are almost as important as your MC. Be sure that you don’t sacrifice their introduction in the first chapter just to introduce your main character. A secondary character’s first scene should highlight their personality and the traits that are critical to the story even if they are in the first chapter.

Examples

mastiff in the woodsRubeus Hagrid

Name: Hagrid is similar to haggard, describing his wild appearance.

Setting: The night Harry is dropped at Dursleys’. “There was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country.” The night was cloudy with impending rain and around the world shooting stars filled the sky but not on Privet Drive.

-Conveys sadness and troubles

First mention:

“Hagrid’s late. I suppose it was he who told you I’d be here, by the way?”

– Reveals Hagrid is unreliable and interferes.

A little later-

“Hagrid’s bringing him.”

“Do you think it is – wise – to trust Hagrid with something as important as this?”

“I would trust Hagrid with my life.”

-Counterbalances first mention by showing that though he is unreliable (reinforced by McGonagall’s statement), he is trustworthy and dependable when it really matters.

First dialogue:

“Borrowed it, Professor Dumbledore, sir,” said the giant, climbing carefully off the motorcycle as he spoke.  “Young Sirius Black lent it to me. I’ve got him, sir.”

-The repetition of sir shows he is eager to please Dumbledore and his need to reassure Dumbledore that he completed the task at hand shows his insecurity.

First interaction: A flying motorcycle drops from the sky and a huge, wild man steps from it holding Harry carefully.  After Hagrid hands over Harry he asks if he can say goodbye and sobs over the fact that they must leave Harry behind.

-This shows his concern, protectiveness, and sensitivity.

First interaction with MC:  Hagrid breaks down the door and puts it carefully back in place. Then sits on a couch asking for tea while insulting Dudley and Mr. Dursley. In the same breath, he is kind to Harry. Then he gives Harry a smushed birthday cake.

-Again, we see the cliché of the big, wild man counterbalanced by his careful and caring nature. His protectiveness is emphasized once more in the scene.

Severus Snape

Potions classroom set from making of Harry PotterName: Severus is close to severe and Snape is a combination of snake and snipe.

Setting: Although the character’s first scene is in the banquet hall during the opening feast, in the potions lab Snape is in “his” domain.

-The potions room is in one of the dungeons giving an ominous promise for the character’s future.

First mention:

“Oh you know Quirrell already, do you? No wonder he’s looking so nervous, that’s Professor Snape. He teaches Potions, but he doesn’t want to – everyone knows he’s after Quirrell’s job. Knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.”

-This establishes Snape’s shady nature

First dialogue:

“Ah, yes.” He said softly, “Harry Potter. Our new – celebrity.”

-Belittling and antagonistic toward Harry

First interaction: Snape, a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose and sallow skin, is sitting with Professor Quirrell at the banquet table.

“The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes – and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.”

-Snape’s first glance causes Harry pain.

First interaction with MC: Although I could use the above example, I will continue with the first Potions class. First, Snape remarks on Harry’s celebrity then moves to a haughty lecture about the art of potion making which culminates in, “’-if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.’”

– Snape’s condescension and shady personality are reinforced in each interaction. It is made clear he esteems intelligence and has a personal dislike of Harry.

Learn more about publishing and craft by checking out other blogs in the monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop created by the indomitable Raimey Gallant. Toolbox filled with writing implements

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By |2018-04-18T00:26:55+00:00April 16th, 2018|Craft, Writing|23 Comments

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Writer, Software Engineer, modern-day Renaissance woman and eternal student

23 Comments

  1. D.E. Haggerty April 18, 2018 at 1:05 am - Reply

    These examples really got me thinking. Re-writes here I come!

  2. Erika Beebe April 18, 2018 at 5:59 am - Reply

    Excellent post! I agree, we must not waist a word unless it’s necessary and relevant. First impressions hook the reader and these days attention spans are so small writer’s must grab the attention right away and make the idea relevant to the story 🙂

  3. marie gilbert April 18, 2018 at 7:39 am - Reply

    I love reading your blogs

  4. Kristina Stanley April 18, 2018 at 8:23 am - Reply

    Funny how advice for real life can apply to writing novels too. Thanks for the tips.

  5. Dawn Byrne April 18, 2018 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Great information, examples and visuals about characterization. Thank you.

  6. Anna April 18, 2018 at 11:07 am - Reply

    All great tips. I’ve loved Hagrid from the beginning. Now I know why. hehehe

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  7. Victoria Marie Lees April 18, 2018 at 11:48 am - Reply

    As always, Erika, excellent tips and examples here. I’ve shared it online. I love the Harry Potter characters, and I love your photos on your blog. Thanks for helping your fellow writer.

    • Erika Timar April 18, 2018 at 10:19 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Victoria. Your support and praise are much appreciated.

  8. D.R. Shoultz April 18, 2018 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Excellent post and examples. I will definitely use your tips to test my character descriptions in my WIP. Aside: Your formatting, pictures, examples and content reveal the time and thought you put into your blog. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Erika Timar April 18, 2018 at 10:18 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Donn. I really appreciate the compliment. If my tips will help something click for someone else, the post is worth the time and effort.

  9. Chrys Fey April 18, 2018 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Loved your examples! Introducing a character is important and can be tricky. So many writers lay out all the details of a character’s physical appearance right in the beginning with several lines of description, but it’s better to work in those details naturally as the character goes about his or her business.

    • Erika Timar April 18, 2018 at 10:16 pm - Reply

      Very true. Including information about a character, whether description or backstory, should be added to the story like seasoning to a dish, enough to make it tasty but not dumped in one spot.

  10. Ronel Janse van Vuuren April 19, 2018 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Great insight! I love the examples you used 🙂

  11. Joan Curtis April 19, 2018 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    When I first looked at your blog, I thought it might be about the first pages of the manuscript. Instead, it was a refreshing new look at character development. Thank you for giving me one more thing to think about as I reread my WIP!

  12. Iola April 19, 2018 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Interesting! I’d never considered how many opportunities our characters get to make a first impression. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Raimey Gallant April 20, 2018 at 3:33 am - Reply

    Really interesting food for thought. Thanks!

  14. Hoda April 20, 2018 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Oh, great tips! Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  15. Adam April 21, 2018 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    I love how setting can inform an audience’s impression of the character. I think one of my favorite techniques is the character introduction by proxy. Introduce an object, or location, and establish that “this” is theirs, and let audiences make inferences, both based on the description of the proxy, and the fact that “this” was chosen as the proxy. A character who’s introduced via a room full of books is very different from one introduced via a workshop filled with tools, or a patch of ground, rich with life.

    I’m also fond of leveraging clichés. One can use them to establish a character’s dominant attribute(s), or you can set audiences up for an unexpected surprise, letting them (mistakenly) assume they know what this character is like because they resemble a cliché at first glance, though I think that can also irritate audiences if they interpret the surprise as a criticism.

    I think your analysis of Hagrid’s representation is very well done. Plucking and isolating the relevant excerpts really helps to highlight and focus on how the author conveys Hagrid’s nature through sprinkles of carefully chosen words.

    Well done.

  16. Louise April 22, 2018 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    I hadn’t thought about the setting influencing my character introduction. My character’s introduced in a sunny back yard at the moment, which doesn’t suggest anything interesting at all! So many great points for me to consider when I start on my second draft 🙂 Great examples too, makes me want to read Harry Potter again!

  17. J.J. Burry April 23, 2018 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Excellent ideas! I’m working on first mention right now with a character in my book who is mentioned well before readers interact with him.

  18. Crystal Collier May 2, 2018 at 7:56 am - Reply

    Awesome advice. I love it! I’m with you. In fact, I spent a good year JUST focusing on the beginning of my stories and how to engage the reader immediately. It almost always boils down to the character on the page.

  19. […] Impressions: As I’ve said before, your character’s name is part of his first impression. It is one of the first strokes creating […]

  20. Luccia Gray June 20, 2018 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    I found this really interesting. I’d never really thought about this as much as I should have. Thanks.

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