There’s no point having a story by the end of which the reader will know who your main character is and what he’s about.
You may think that the purpose of the story is to reveal this and that’s it’s intriguing for the reader not to be too sure where a character’s loyalties lie. That would be wrong.
Did you have a good idea of what kind of person Harry was before he got to Hogwart’s? Did you have a reasonable idea about Katniss before she got to the games?
The initial part of a story is to tell the reader the character’s values and beliefs. Once things kick off, then it’s time to test those values and beliefs.
In some cases both of these can be conflated into one. Thrillers and other stories where we start in the middle of things. Or the character may be of a type that is easy to recognise and understand (the obsessed cop, the woman who really wants a baby).
In the Jack Reacher novels we are often given a list of the main’s character’s achievements and awards while he was in the army, and this gives you a pretty good idea of who he is in a very short space, but mostly it helps slot him into a particular pigeonhole.
Some genres actively welcome this sort of clichéd characterisation (although 'archetypes' might be a kinder way of putting it), but a little more complexity is also a good thing.
Whatever it is you tell the reader about your character in the early part of the book, it’s important that it directly plays a part in the story that unfolds. There’s no point having a woman who’s afraid of the dark and rescues abandoned cats if the story is about her deciding to become a race car driver.
It may seem like a way of making a character feel more than just two dimensional to give them diverse interests and an unclear, more ‘realistic’ narrative. That would be wrong, too.
A contrived as it might feel, the whole point of giving a character a particular viewpoint is to bend it to breaking point. Creating a vague, wishy-washy feeling (life-like as it may appear) is annoying to read. But much easier to write, which is why it often appeals.
In Rosemary’s Baby, we start with Rosemary and her husband house hunting. What we get is an indication of how much Rosemary wants to settle down and start a family. Her desire for that will be put to the test when she gets her wish, a baby. Meanwhile, her husband, an actor, is shown as a consummate liar as he wangles them out of a contract for one place so they can move into their dream home. This trait of her husband’s is also used to test her (worth noting that since she’s the MC, it’s her testing that interests us, not his).
What do your characters stand for? What are their values and guiding principles? What do they believe in?
And more importantly, when is it clear to the reader.
Your first chapter, your first scene, should be about this. No matter what the actual events, how the character handles things should give the reader a strong indication of what they’re about, and those same core beliefs and behaviour should be brought into play throughout the rest of the book.
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