Wednesday, March 23, 2016

First Impressions of a Main Character

The moment the main character first crosses into the story.
The first time a reader meets the main character. It’s a great moment, as the reader first glances at who they’ll be following for the rest of the novel. As a writer, that can be an exciting moment to write, but it can also be intimidating. How does a writer give just enough information about the character, to get the reader interested, without slowing down the story?

Right now, I’m editing a novel written in first person. It was a new experience for me, as I tend to write in third person, but I really felt this character just needed to talk directly to the reader. As I dive into editing, (and try not to hyperventilate with all the comments I’m getting back from critique partners,) I started thinking about how the protagonist introduces himself/herself in first person. How does that brief impression start the reader out in different novels?

To look into this closer, I found several of my favorite first person middle grade novels to analyze the information given about the main character. There was another reason I wanted to look closer at this topic too. I’ve been getting some comments back about including more physical description of the main character and I wanted to see how other writers interwove that into the first chapter. The following is a couple of strategies that I noticed authors using in first person:

  1. Using other characters opinions to give a brief portrait of the protagonist- I saw this method a lot in first person books. Generally, it starts with the main character telling the reader that their father or mother says that they are <>. Katie Kelly uses this opening in Here’s the Thing About Me: Lucy Rose, when she notes that her dad says she’s a “smart cookie.” In Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Jack Gantos gives a one second snapshot of his character using this method in the very first sentence. “At school, they say I’m wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad or wired glad, depending on my mood and whatever teacher has ended up with me.”
  2. Explaining their name- I noticed a couple of first person stories that started with a brief explanation of where their name came from. In this method, the main character normally has an unusual name. In Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff, the beginning is dedicated to the mishap of how the character was named. In Lisa Yee’s Warp Speed, Marley the main character starts by telling us, “I share my name with a dog, a dead guy and a ghost. Is it any wonder my life sucks?”
  3. Comparing the character to the setting- I only saw this in one book, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention. In Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle, the character compares her features to the landscape in her town on the coast of Canada with, “eyes like a summer storm.” It really sets the reader into the mood of the story and pulls them further into the setting, while developing the character.
  4. A situation that characterizes a yearning for the character- Some characters are too concerned about their current dire situation to tell us anything directly about themselves. But their situation tells a lot. For example, in Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell, Nikki Maxwell tells us about her lack of a cell phone and how everyone else at school has a designer phone. She also further explains that she likes to draw and spends all her money on art supplies. This situation tells us that Nikki is embarrassed to be different from everyone else, that she likes art and it also tells us a bit about her personality in how she deals with the situation. Rather than be caught without the trending object, Nikki buys a used phone off Ebay and tries to pass it off as the designer item. Hilarity ensues.

I’m sure these aren’t the only ways to introduce a character in first person, and I’d love to hear about other methods or favorite first person books in the comments. What is your favorite thing to learn about a character in the first chapter?


  1. I love comparing a person's face to a landscape. What a cool approach. I've definitely done the name explanation. :)

  2. Polly Horvath is an amazing author. I hadn't realized the name explanation was so widespread until I looked at it closer.