This post is about how writers should introduce their characters in the first few lines. It includes three tips to help you do it as well as you can.
We all thin slice. No, I’m not referring to your culinary skills. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, thin slicing is defined as our unconscious ability ‘to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience’. This is what allows you to suss out people instinctively only seconds after meeting them.
The same holds true for your readers. Because they will be thin slicing the characters in your novel, how you introduce your characters in those first few lines is critical.
First-time authors often make the mistake of introducing a character by describing physical appearance. While it tells readers what a character look like, it’s a lower form of storytelling. You have only a few seconds to create a snapshot that shows the reader exactly who the character is.
Meet Sheriff Elliot West
Consider these two introductions:
Sheriff West I
The dry glare spilled around him, making his silhouette painful to look at. He kept the chapped saloon doors open with his sausage fingers, the chunky gold ring on his little finger glinting. Ol’ Jim’s honky-tonk melody faltered. Satisfied, he sauntered into the saloon, the doors clapping to behind him.
‘Howdy, ma’am,’ he said, easing his hat onto the counter. He licked his thumb and rubbed the spotless sheriff’s badge.
Sally fidgeted behind the counter.
‘Elliot,’ she nodded. It was her small rebellion.
He fingered his badge. She refused to give in.
‘Make it a double,’ he said.
His eyes locked with hers and then slid away again, but not before she saw the dark flash. Of course it would be whiskey. Of course it would be a double. Of course it would be on the house.
Sheriff West II
The dry glare spilled around him, silhouetting his frame in the doorway for a moment. He strode into the saloon, his loose-limbed gait keeping time with Ol’ Jim’s honky-tonk melody. He tossed his hat with its sheriff’s badge onto the counter in a puff of dust.
‘Sally,’ he grinned around the matchstick in his mouth.
‘Elliot,’ she said, pouring whiskey into a foggy-glassed tumbler.
‘How’s business?’ he asked.
She tipped the bottle to make it a double, but he stayed her hand with calloused fingers.
‘That’ll do, thanks.’
‘I can give it to you on the house, you know.’
‘Nah. It’s not the money. Steady head, steady hands.’
3 Ways To Introduce Your Characters In The First Few Lines
Make your words count. Here are three tips to help you introduce your characters in a few lines:
Use physical descriptions sparingly and make them do double duty: readers don’t need to know all your characters’ physical attributes – only the important ones. Think of the first sheriff’s sausage fingers, gold ring, and clean badge, compared to the second sheriff’s calloused fingers and dusty hat.
Establish your characters’ characteristics: you can show who your characters are by the way they move, their habits, and how they treat others. What does the sheriffs’ treatment of Sally tell you?
Play with stereotypes: in real life, the danger with thin slicing is that you stereotype people and make incorrect judgements. In writing, stereotyping is a fun tool. It can both quickly establish who a character is according to the stereotype, and help you make the character three-dimensional when you depart from it. It can also help you set up red herrings and work in surprise twists when you pull the stereotype-rug out from under your readers’ feet.