Turning Ideas Into Words

First Impressions: Protagonists

65 - FI Protagonists

So, here’s what we know about the publishing industry (whether you are interested in traditional publishing or self-publishing):

  1. It’s incredibly competitive 
  2. Writers have about 3 pages to hook a reader
  3. Realistically, it’s less than 3 pages
  4. Did I mention it’s INCREDIBLY competitive?

I think you get the idea.

In the past I have talked about the importance for strong opening lines to your novel. This is the first thing that anyone will read, and you really want to hit the ground running. But what comes after the opening lines is equally as important to get right.

Opening Lines

A reader’s first impression of your characters will shape their impression of the book overall. If they are instantly drawn to your characters, you can all but guarantee that they will stick with them from start to finish.

Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at various character archetypes and how they can be introduced effectively to compel your readers to read on.

The Protagonist

As this is the character upon whose shoulders the majority of the story is going to rest, their introduction is crucial. Your reader will want to know everything about them: what they do, how they fit into the world of the story, whether they are confident or shy, trusting or cynical.

strangerthanfictiondisckp5Believe it or not, the reader is not particularly worried at this point about their physical appearance, or what they have for breakfast each morning, or whether they remembered to brush their teeth or not (obviously the exception to all of this comes down to whether those details are relevant to the plot or not, but unless you are writing an alien invasion narrative wherein the aliens are particularly put off by bad breath, maybe skip their morning bathroom routine).

There are many ways to introduce the main character to a story, but essentially, most boil down to one of two ways:

  • Showing your character in their everyday setting
  • Dropping right into the middle of the action surrounding your character

Of course, depending on the character, sometimes it can be both at once.

The Everyday Setting

This can be tricky to pull off. As mentioned above, generally speaking, readers are going to be put off by long descriptions of mundane activities. Unless those activities are setting your character up for something extraordinary, they don’t really have a place on the page.

If you are writing Science Fiction or Fantasy, however, showing what life is like for your character day-to-day can be a quick and effective way to familiarise the reader with what is different about the world you have created.

beauty-trends-blogs-daily-beauty-reporter-2014-03-20-divergent-bun-1A good example of this is how Tris is introduced in Divergent by Veronica Roth. When we first meet her, Tris is having her hair trimmed by her mother and is then given a short amount of time to look in the mirror before it is locked away again. The everyday activity here (having her hair cut) gives us a great enough sense of familiarity to navigate the less familiar aspect of it (not being able to look in the mirror for too long) as we are introduced to Tris and the ways of her faction.

A story that I am currently working on starts with my main character enjoying an early morning run. It talks about the monotonous rhythm that she finds and how this clears her mind. And how she monitors the length of the run by the rotation of her satellite as a nebula passes her window every few minutes.

This is the beauty of writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. It gives us the opportunity to take everyday, mundane activities and show them in an entirely new light and context.

Straight Into Action

If you’ve been paying attention to Netflix over the last few months, you may well have come across The Witcher. Geralt (the titular Witcher) is introduced as he bursts out of a muddy swamp already locked in battle with the Kikimora – a hideous monster that is more than twice his size. Before he has uttered a word (or a grunt in his case), we get to see him in action.


Of course, this isn’t the main action of the overall story – just a snapshot of what Geralt faces on a semi-regular basis. A similar technique may be seen if the main character is, for example, a police officer and is introduced in pursuit of a suspect who is connected with a different case, before the story’s main case is handed to them.

A Combination of Both

One of my favourite novel openings was written by my best friend, Sarah Jayne Tanner, in her novel Defiance. It starts with the main character, Noah, being punched in the face.

DefianceHe is in the middle of a fight (plenty of action) which you soon discover is taking place in a club with spectators who are betting on the outcome and that this is a common occurrence for Noah who is a fighter and gets paid modestly for this kind of display (his everyday setting).

Whatever you do with your character’s introduction, make sure it shows them in the most appropriate light for who they are and what is to come. This is your opportunity to make a lasting first impression on your reader.

Make it count.

Why not take a moment to think about your favourite book. How is the main character introduced? And how did that introduction draw you into the story? Leave a comment with your thoughts.


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