Six impossible things

Fixing Chapter One: Character

Here is where we start going through the three “boring first chapter” problems and ways to fix them…and a few ways not to fix them.

First up is the most basic and obvious problem: “The reader doesn’t care about the hero(ine) yet.” This is kind of a “duh” problem – at the start of the story, the readers don’t know the main character(s) yet, so why would they care about them any more than they’d care about any random stranger? It is the job of the first chapter to get your readers to care about the main character, or at the very least, to be interested enough in the character to keep reading.

A lot of writing advice-givers look at the above situation and start by assuming that readers are nice people who care enough about random strangers to be at least mildly sympathetic when the stranger is in some kind of trouble (especially if the trouble isn’t their fault). So they advise starting Chapter One with the main character in some kind of trouble, as a quick way to generate reader sympathy as well as theoretically getting readers interested in when/whether/how the character will get out of the trouble.

There is nothing desperately wrong with this approach, except that if readers come out of Chapter One with nothing more than a mild feeling of generic sympathy for the main character based on common humanity, then Chapter One has failed the “gets the reader to care about the character” test. It may still pass the “gets the reader interested enough to keep reading” test, but I think it’s more effective when the reader is interested enough to keep reading because they are starting to care about the character, rather than in spite of the fact that they don’t, really.

A character who is obviously charming and charismatic (and I mean actually behaving in a charming/charismatic way, not merely having the writer say “He was terribly charming” or “Her charisma had gotten her elected to the city council”) will usually get most readers pointed in the right direction from the very start. A character who is mysterious in an interesting way will also often intrigue readers long enough for genuine liking to take hold. But the real payoff is usually in a character the reader cares about from the earliest possible point in the story.

So how do you get readers to care? Well, how do people come to care for another person in real life? It is often something that happens slowly as they get to know one another, and it is usually based in common interests and understanding. Sometimes it comes about through one party’s charm or charisma; sometimes it is reciprocal reinforcement (I like you because you seem to like me, and then you like me more because I like you, and around we go). Sometimes it’s because two people are in the same situation or have had similar experiences, and they identify with each other. And it usually involves emotional intimacy – that is, you exchange confidences and stories about things that probably wouldn’t normally discussed with a casual acquaintance.

Translating this into fiction is not easy, since the fictional character can’t actually interact with the reader, but there are a few things to watch. The first point is that liking/caring for someone usually happens slowly, as one spends time with him/her. “Spending time with” in fiction means focused word count, preferably as continuous as possible. Usually, this means that the main character is the viewpoint character; that you don’t switch to a different viewpoint unless/until you have to (as in a braided story, where there is more than one “main character”); that if you have a choice between cutting off the scene or letting it go on a bit longer, you pick longer; that you keep the number of other characters introduced in the first chapter, and especially in the first scene, to a minimum so the readers won’t have to spend all their time remembering tons of new people instead of spending it getting interested in your main character.

If you can’t manage one or more (or any) of the above, it isn’t going to have dire and dreadful consequences; it just means your readers will have to fall in love with your character fast. Charm and charisma are good for this, or at least, good for getting the reader interested enough to keep going until he/she has spent enough time with the character to start caring. The catch is that the character has to be charming and/or charismatic; the writer can’t just say “He was charming” or “Her charisma had gotten her elected to the city council.”

Shared interests, qualities, and experiences are another way that people get interested in someone and/or learn to like them. In fiction, this sometimes extends to interests, qualities, and experiences that the reader doesn’t actually have, but would like to have or find out about, which gives one a somewhat broader range to pick from. This is good, because “the reader” is actually a bunch of different individuals, none of whom the writer actually knows, so the writer can’t easily choose the character’s interests and experiences to match up with the readers.

When you are in revising mode, of course, you seldom want to be coming up with new things about your character, especially if you already have a whole book written (any new background you stick into Chapter One at this point will mean additional revisions so as to integrate it with other parts of the story). What you’re looking for are 1) the interests, qualities, and backstory that you found out during writing the rest of the book, and 2) the places in Chapter One where you can show some of those things to the reader (or at least hint at them) without having them look shoehorned in. You want to do this anyway, in order to make the characterization more consistent, so really it’s a matter of picking the top two or three things that will make the character more interesting, appealing, or easy for most/many of your intended readers to identify with, and using those in Chapter One.

Finally, one of the things that makes many characters appeal to many readers is showing the reader some of their vulnerabilities, especially emotional vulnerabilities. One doesn’t usually start Chapter One off with a large, startling hole in the character’s emotional defenses, but hinting that it’s there can be just as effective. Knowing that a character has a mysterious angsty backstory can get readers involved really quickly and keep them going for quite a long time.

And if one can’t do any of that in Chapter One…well, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a particularly likeable character, but he was interesting. If you can pique the reader’s curiosity, you may not need to make him fall in love with your character in Chapter One. Or ever. (Though you will have to do something else very right to get your readers involved with your story in some other way.)

Note that I haven’t said anything about describing the character, or even gone into a lot of detail about exactly how to do some of the stuff I’m recommending. That all tends to be a matter of preference and style – some readers demand a two-paragraph physical description the minute the character walks on stage, or you lose them; other readers will toss the book if you do more than mention in passing that the character is tall and dark-haired. Writers tend to gravitate toward what they like as readers in this regard, and as long as the writer isn’t at one extreme end or the other of the description/no description scale, it usually works fine. If you are at one end or the other, it is often a good idea to move consciously and deliberately toward the center (that is, cut a little of your two-page description, or put in at least another sentence after “dark hair and eyes”) if you want to give a little to the maximum number of readers. If you don’t care about that, don’t feel you have to change anything.

  1. I imagine it gets tougher when you have a character you wish to define to the characters one way with an opening to change our minds (Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice).

  2. Reading screenplays can teach a lot about novel writing (not the least of which is economy of language), and I can think of no better way to learn how to quickly involve readers with a character than to study pretty much any screenplay by Joss Whedon. Give the man thirty seconds, and he can get you emotionally involved with a lima bean.

  3. For me, voice is important too. I don’t want to spend time with a character who’s voice I despise (or who is boring). I think that goes along the ‘be interesting’ advice.

  4. I sense a connection here between making the main character likable or admirable or interesting in Chapter 1 and choosing a POV to tell the story from.

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