For the next few Mondays I'm offering a series of questions to help you get to know your characters better, and offering exercises for understanding how they'll relate to your story. These can be helpful for primary and secondary characters. Use them to make your characters breathe - and maybe to spark inspiration if you're struggling...
QUESTION #2: What is the primary
impression your character gives to others the first time they meet?
Yes, yes, I can hear you thinking "But isn't that just the flipside of question one?"
Yes, it is. But this question is even more importanto because this is the impression that absolutely must drive the first appearance of your character on the page.
That's important enough for me to repeat it. With screaming caps:
THIS IS THE IMPRESSION THAT ABSOLUTELY MUST DRIVE THE FIRST APPEARANCE OF YOUR CHARACTER ON THE PAGE.
Because as the story develops, so will your character. But in order to show your character arc, you must first demonstrate the primary impression they give as a foundation.
EXAMPLE (AKA: Why this is important):
In the first manuscript I ever wrote, the hero and heroine were struck by "insta-love". Now, the insta-love had a magical spark, but it was insta-love nonetheless. And the insta-love was going to have a marked effect on the hero's attitude to life.
In other words, it was about to change him dramatically.
In the first iterations of the story, Carl (an extremely tall, athletic, powerful, arrogant and cool-to-the-point-of-cold, kind of guy) didn't appear on the page until he met Dani (a much less polished "every-girl" type).
Unfortunately, because meeting Dani sparked an instant change in Carl's thoughts and feelings about himself and the world in general, his felicitous manners, softer humor and self-doubt-covered-in-fake-confidence gave the reader the impression that a very gentlemanly, socially cool guy had met a girl he liked.
When in truth, a near-ruthless and old-for-his-years guy had just been struck dumb by meeting the love of his life.
Because I never laid the foundation of Carl's strength and emotional detachment, the shock of his meeting with Dani didn't come home to the reader.
Now, in the eleven-thousandth draft of that manuscript, Carl first appears to the reader in a scene wherein he manipulates his best friend (who is a girl), handles his powerful father, and generally demonstrates a very attractive, but very self-assured and emotionall devoid attitude to life. The primary
impression he offers to everyone on first meeting prior to the moment when he meets Dani and his entire life changes.
Now, when he meets Dani in the second chapter, it's clear to the reader what an earth-shattering moment this is. Zeus has been knocked out of the clouds and become very, very mortal.
But the skeleton of steel remains underneath...
Now it's your turn:
For whatever character you're working on, write a short scene that occurs the day / week before
the beginning of your book. Write it from the point-of-view of someone who isn't
the character you're developing. Make that person meet your character for the first time.
The purpose of the exercise is to show
your character's foundational state of mind, physical appearance, and attitude towards life (in particular, to strangers).
This isn't the time to focus on plot or backstory. Write this for yourself. Show yourself what impression your character gives to someone who hasn't met them before. Then compare that to the impression your character is giving the first time they appear in your book.
Do the impressions match?
Your Turn: Any questions? If not, tell us how your protagonist appears to strangers on first meeting.