how to create and introduce unforgettable characters  

Balancing Backstory and Development: How to Create and Introduce Characters

First impressions always last and it's no different when it comes to meeting protagonists that we are about to go on a journey through a story world with. Editor and literary agent, Jon Curzon, gives us his advice on how to introduce character to create a lasting impression that sticks with us beyond the last page.

A blank page can be a daunting prospect – when you’ve got the idea, how do you go about filling the page? Story is one aspect, but how to create and introduce character within this? One way through this is to pair the two; to approach them as one and the same, or at least inherently linked: some of the most memorable works in literary history are introduced through character.

Take, for example, the characterisation in one of the most well-known works of literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Rather than looking at the eponymous Jay Gatsby, consider the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who opens the plot

‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.’

Or, rather, look to the opening of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.’

In both examples, the writer uses character – in a first-person perspective – to establish or to invoke something of a backstory in making reference to character arc, and so makes the opening passage a point of character transition, rather than a point of character outline. In which, for instance, an extract might conventionally follow:

‘I was in New York doing... it was the summer...’.

Simply, character is instead used to bring the reader in at a point in the story which is already active and developing – even and only from this first line. From the beginning, a balance is established between backstory and development, and the voice is natural. The reader meets this pace.

To look at a more recent example, the opening of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time follows:

‘I often think of what Hendrich said to me, over a century ago, in his New York apartment.’

Again, a balance is struck between the present and the past – the story opens with a proposition, centred on character. Much like Carraway in The Great Gatsby, the narrator refers back to an earlier exchange; this in a way frames the plot, setting the tone of the story and conveying something of the character’s profile.

But all these are shown from a first-person perspective. How does this change when writing from a third-person perspective?

Looking all the way back to Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, with the opening:

‘Mr Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814. He was one of the most noticeable members of the Reform Club, though he seemed always to avoid attracting attention; an enigmatical personage, about whom little was known, except that he was a polished man of the world...’,

It could be seen that this style of character introduction is somewhat carried through. Here, Verne doesn’t labour to create a scene; to drop the reader in an immediate and specific circumstance, forcing action (‘Phileas Fogg stood in his house at... he did xyz’, e.g.). Nor does he describe at first Fogg’s features, or assert what kind of character he is in a dictatorial manner.

Instead, in the way that Plath situates the reader through the narrator, Verne situates the reader though his mediation – we know that Fogg is a polished man of the world, enigmatic yet one of the most noticeable members of the Reform Club. At that, we know all this not through it being stated outright in an aside, but by way of the narrative: here again, aspects of plot and characterisation can be seen to work together to make the most of the opening. Equally, Verne cites in this first line an aspect outside of what the reader, at present, can have a frame of reference for – that Verne is a noticeable member of the Reform Club. In the context of our reading, we don’t really know the implication of this – and that doesn’t have to matter.

As Ursula K. Le Guin notes, ‘Only what the viewpoint character (or omniscient narrator) knows, feels, perceives... can be told. The reader can infer what other people feel.’ Significantly, Verne (and Fitzgerald, Plath and Haig) doesn’t introduce explanatory asides, rushing to convey meaning in what is said, but allows things written to be left hanging, their meaning to be taken up by the reader or through the course of the story.

A more contemporary example of this narration, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng opens:

‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.’

As consistently, the action is put in context of a character in transition: the opening marks a character development out of which the story then constructs a picture of character, as the plot develops (against the context of this opening). The reader, from the outset, has preconceptions of character, drawing implication as much from what is left unsaid.

The point with backstory is not to rush to convey it, and to leave space for the reader to build an idea of character. In introducing character in the way in which those books outlined do, at a point of transition, the reader’s attention is already piqued by the character: what they have to come and what they might reveal.

In summary, it pays not to be too conscious of trying to establish character in block, or conveying an outline of a character at the beginning of your story; allow character to function as a way into the plot, and as an integral part of the storytelling process. The danger is, as with aspects of physical description, that backstory given in block - listing off events, checking off details - can be disengaging for the reader.

On reflection, then, creating a character could be thought of as working backwards from the story premise. How does the character serve the story, and the story serve the character? Where might the story intersect with the character, and the point at which the plot opens? How do you want the story to be framed, and how does the main character function in doing this? Once these questions are considered, and the opening mapped, it’s time to think of development: of story and of character.

Jon Curzon is a literary agent at Artellus Ltd. and an editor for The Writing Consultancy.

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