Introducing a Character
Creating a character is one of the most important components of writing fiction. The reader needs to feel enough about the characters in your story, good or bad, to want to know what happens to them. Readers will give up on a book if they couldn't care less about the characters in it, let alone what fates befall them. I know I have.
Do readers always have to like your characters, or at least find something they can relate to in them? I say no. Seeing a despicable villain punished or even redeemed can provide as much pleasure as seeing a hero rewarded. Sometimes, people find it fascinating to read about characters to whom they (hopefully) cannot relate at all. Serial killers, for example.
One of my favorite myths about creating a fictional character is that the author must know absolutely everything about that character. Utter nonsense, really. Do you honestly believe you know absolutely everything about yourself, let alone your closest friends or family? Can you really expect to know a character you create even better? If you write more stories about that character, you'll discover new things about him or her, just as you learn more about those close to you over time. I recall a screenwriter years ago telling me how, when she saw the hairs on the arm of a masseuse, the last piece fell into place and she suddenly knew everything there was to know about her main character. To be fair, perhaps her notion of totality differed from mine.
I am not suggesting that incomplete, sketchily-drawn caricatures are perfectly acceptable. Far from it, as those are usually the least likely to hook an audience. How much do you need to know about your character? Enough to tell the story. And once you know enough, you're faced with an equally important task: introducing that character to your audience.
The best way to begin learning any kind of art is to study good examples. How has what you're trying to do been done successfully before? Let's take a well-known character like Indiana Jones. Before audiences around the world had seen four blockbuster feature films (and a successful television series), how was Dr. Jones first introduced in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? Yes, that was a film and not a book, but it was a story and serves my purpose here.
In the opening minutes of that first movie – even amid the breakneck action – a good deal of information is relayed about the hero. He is rough-looking, for starters. Unshaven (much rarer when this film came out, and certainly when it was set), wearing a cracked leather jacket and dusty hat. He moves with a rugged, confident grace. He knows what to look for (a poison dart embedded in a tree trunk, and other lethal booby-traps inside an ancient temple), but doesn't let such discoveries rattle him unduly (more than we can say for his two companions). He is focused but never tuned out to his surroundings (he hears the cocking of a pistol behind his back, notices an unusual, moss-covered diamond pattern on a stone floor). He has no problem acknowledging respect for a worthy competitor – Forrestal, who was, by Indy's own admission, “very, very good.” He speaks when necessary, confidently and decisively, and he's not the type to relax his guard when the going appears easy (“There is nothing to fear here!” “That's what scares me.”). The man does his research and comes prepared (he has a heavy bag of sand ready to foil still another booby-trap), yet at the same time, he is adept at living in the moment, improvising and adapting on the fly. He's also no stranger to betrayal. He doesn't seem to have a problem with spiders, but has a debilitating fear of snakes. In a very short span of time – a span which includes armed assailants, deadly spikes, poison darts whistling through the air, a collapsing chamber, a bottomless pit, a crushing boulder, and a tribe of hostile natives – we learn a lot about the mysterious explorer at the center of all this (whether we have time to process this knowledge consciously or not). A lot of the credit goes to strong, solid writing in the way the character is introduced. It's not surprising to me that, even with the same actor, director, producer, composer, and several crew members, none of the sequels ever really matched the original. After all, Lawrence Kasdan only wrote the first one.
In my novel Shadow of a Distant Morning, the protagonist is Devlin Caine, a private detective working in 1930s Kansas City. This is my first novel to feature this character, and as I'd like for there to be more (I'm already working on a second), I wanted to be careful with how I presented Caine to readers. Yes, he's a classic gumshoe in a noir setting, but I didn't want him or the novel to be one long cliché. The story is told in the first person, which made it easier to share a lot of Caine's internal monologue. Still, it wouldn't have done for Caine to tell you everything about himself in the first chapter. Slogging through someone's entire life story can really slow down a narrative. I was also going for a high degree of realism here. Caine is not the toughest guy in Kansas City. He's not an infallible, indestructible hero, involved in endless fistfights and shootouts, seducing every woman he meets, or wearing holier-than-thou ethics like a badge of martyred honor. Caine is an intelligent, resourceful professional who is capable of rising to complex challenges. I decided it would be best to start Caine off on a routine day, give the reader a chance to soak up the setting and get to know our hero before the routine turns exceptional.
The first chapter opens with Caine having breakfast in his favorite downtown diner. We see that he's observant and analytical (he counts and somewhat categorizes the other patrons). He likes to keep up with the news (skimming and reflecting on various stories in his newspaper). He has no great love of danger (we learn from his reflections that he used to work for Pinkerton's, and turned down the opportunity to join the feds and chase after heavily armed public enemies). He's a disciplined eater who rarely finishes his food. He lays the occasional sports bet. He has an easy manner about him, engaging in friendly banter with the diner's owner. He cares about not offending people, especially those who provide him with some of the necessities of life, like food and booze. During his drive to work, passing various landmarks, it's clear that Caine knows quite a bit about the city he's now working in, including key political and criminal figures. At his office, Caine pauses in his Monday morning routine to glance over at the framed documents on the wall. These tell us he is a college graduate and a decorated veteran of the First World War. While not a reckless man by nature, Caine does on occasion buck authority (reference is made to another framed document Caine keeps at home, a reprimand for punching out a superior). Caine's attractive young secretary arrives, and while their manner with one another is relaxed, even teasing, their exchanges are not provocative or salacious. A knock at the door has Caine musing over the kind of client who tries to catch him right when he opens, and we can tell he's been in the business awhile, that he knows his trade and usually knows what to expect from it.
By the time his first client of the day walks in – a client who sets into motion a complex chain of events – the reader knows quite a bit about Devlin Caine. Hopefully, that reader now finds Caine sufficiently interesting to pursue the rest of the story.
Kansas City, 1934. Devlin Caine, a WWI veteran and former Pinkerton’s operative, is hired by a wealthy industrialist to check out a potential business partner. The job is simple and the money good, but for Caine, it’s a short step from checking public records to being roughed up in a back alley. Clearly there are things the client neglected to mention, such as Caine’s predecessor on the job being found in the Missouri River with a slug in his chest. When the man Caine is investigating turns up murdered as well, Caine finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between his client, a competing industrialist, and a local underworld boss – all after a coded notebook Caine found in the dead man’s hotel room. Desperate to unlock the mystery of the notebook (and to protect his client’s beautiful young daughter), Caine plays the three men against each other in an effort to buy time. He knows only one of the three rivals can win this battle, and backing the wrong side will cost lives, starting with his own.
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