The main character in a story will tend to have something about them that marks them out. They need to be distinct from everyone else just as a matter of practicality. It might be a special skill or ability—they’re the best at what they do—but it could also be a behavioural or psychological thing. A character who’s good-hearted or brave or willing to sacrifice or whatever.
While their job or social standing will give the reader a rough idea of the kind of person the story will be about, it’s this unique quality, this thing that marks them out, that gives them their true status. It is also what makes them appealing to read about.
However, while you as the writer may have a very clear idea of what’s so great about the character, the reader doesn’t. And letting them in on it halfway through the book is not going to do you any favours. You have to win them over in the first few pages. So how do you do that?
If the main character is a cop who always gets his man, then you already have a pretty good idea of the kind of character I’m talking about, and yet it’s also a pretty broad and non-specific introduction.
If I think about what makes him so good at his job—maybe his speciality is in the interrogation room—then I might decide it’s his ability to tell when someone's lying that gives him his edge. This is his true status. He’s the guy within policing who holds this place in the hierarchy: the lie detector.
Now, I could demonstrate that in the opening of the story by having him interrogate a suspect. That will show the reader his ability. But there is a danger of it all becoming a bit too repetitive as he interviews one criminal after another. You really want to save your big set pieces for later in the story.
So instead I could put him in a non-police situation (say, buying a new car) and show him using his ability there. You still get to see what he can do but you don’t spoil the specifics of the plot.
That’s an example where you have a very clear way of identifying a character’s status; he’s good at something, I show the reader what it is. Here’s an example that’s a little less straightforward.
Let’s say this story is about a shy, ungainly schoolgirl who has a talent for art which will eventually get discovered and how she deals with sudden fame, popularity and a new level of hatred from her fellow students. How do I introduce that in the first chapter? It’s her art that gives her status, but I certainly don’t want her showing off her painting skills right off the bat when the story is about how she’s discovered and at the start her status is very low.
Just showing her having a bad time at school would establish what her life is like but it won’t make the character particularly appealing to read about (which is the primary goal of an opening).
What you can do though is split the information that the reader knows and what the other characters in the story know. So, if our nerdy heroine is helping out with stage dressing for the school play but pretty much being ignored and left to do the menial stuff while the cool kids paint the backdrops and so on, we can quickly establish the crappiness of her school life.
But if after everyone leaves (forgetting our heroine is even there) she picks up a brush and makes the scenery look good, then we also establish what she can do. The next day the drama teacher is full of praise for the kids in charge of set design. Everything looks great and the kids are only too happy to take credit.
Our girl considers telling them it was her, but she knows it would only make them hate her more for stealing their thunder so she keeps her mouth shut.
So we’ve established her status, her special ability and why it does her no good.
But what if the character doesn’t learn their ability until well into the story? How do you show their ability if they don’t have it yet?
Let’s take the same nerdy girl as above, still an outsider at school, but this time she has no special ability (by the way, if you’re writing a screenplay all this is irrelevant since the girl will be played by a beautiful actress in thick glasses and a kooky hat and the real mystery will be how someone so gorgeous is so unpopular. Aaaanyway...) In this story she will find a magic stone and it will enable her to sing like an angel and find fame and fortune and so on and so forth. Obviously in the opening pages she has no stone and no singing skills.
Here you have to look a little deeper to find the character’s status. In fact you may not be fully aware of it until after the first draft, but I’ll just make something up for the sake of an example. Let’s say her fame and fortune will put her in a position to be as nasty to people as they are to her now and her struggle is to be the same person she was when she was a nobody.
Since this is about morality and being true to yourself, my opening scene would demonstrate this. Let’s say our heroine is bullied by the cool kids, but later when she comes across one of the bullies in the school restroom being horribly ill she helps her out and cleans her up. The bully is confused, “I thought you hated me.” And she does hate her, but she doesn’t want to become what she hates.
Here the status comes from her beliefs. As the writer I know where the story is headed. The character’s strengths, even though they will be sorely tested, will endure. And knowing that means I can show those strengths, in a limited way, early on before circumstances change (or magic stones turn up) and turn her world upside down. But in the end her status, her true status, will be defined by those beliefs she always had.
This ability to know a character’s status and what gives them that status is a huge advantage the writer has over the reader. Mostly it comes from knowing where the character ends up when you’re writing the opening. Their true status, the quality that enables them to be the hero of a story, is also their most appealing attribute. Working these qualities into the opening of the story and giving an idea of what the character is capable of, sometimes directly, sometimes less so, is a great way to introduce the character to the reader in a way that will keep them reading.
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