How to Introduce a Character in a NovelJun 27, 2021
From the desk of Katie Khan.
Lately I have become obsessed with how we first meet our favourite characters in books. Whether they’re honourable, ethical good guys, or down-and-out criminals with a wicked streak, how we’re first introduced to our hero character (and their character flaw) will define the shape of the story. Whether the novel will arc upwards as their situation improves, or downwards in a dramatic fall from grace.
A flawed character is an interesting character. They have somewhere to go.
Some common character flaws include:
- Being vain
Your character might be more on the pathetic side of flawed:
Choosing and revealing your character’s flaw is, I think, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel. It’s also the most open to misinterpretation.
In early drafts we often create deeply unhappy, broken characters who are so down on their luck the first chapter is a misery-fest. Characters so aware they are awful that they stand already on the precipice of self-hatred. Pity them, the author seems to urge; pity this tragic figure for their plight.
This doesn’t work, I’m sorry to say. I’ve spent weeks if not months pondering why; I’ve concluded that when an author steps in and urges us to pity their character, it means we cannot root for them. We’re being given an opinion, rather than being allowed to form one.
More so, when a character openly recognises their own flaw at the start (‘I’m awful and I have to change’), the journey ahead in the rest of the book falls flat because not only are we again being told what to feel about them, but they are not forced dynamically out of their equilibrium.
Resistance to change drives plot. Having no choice but to change is a story.
Here's how to introduce a character and their flaw in a novel:
- Remove your authorial judgement
- Let the character speak
- Introduce the triumphant flaw
- Put the character at odds with their world
- Don't fear writing unlikeable characters.
1. Remove your authorial judgement.
Consider Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, one of our Hero Books at The Novelry.
Highsmith throws us into the opening scene, in media res, as Tom Ripley believes he is being followed and enters a bar on Fifth Avenue to see if the man will bring out a police badge and arrest him. Instead, the man introduces himself as the father of Dickie Greenleaf, a vague college acquaintance of Tom Ripley’s. Ripley is relieved.
He followed the man towards an empty table at the back of the little room. Reprieved, he thought. Free! Nobody was going to arrest him. This was about something else. No matter what it was, it wasn’t grand larceny or tampering with the mails or whatever they called it. Maybe Richard was in some kind of jam. Maybe Mr Greenleaf wanted help, or advice. Tom knew just what to say to a father like Mr Greenleaf.'It's like wringing out a wet cloth; you're trying to get as much water out of the cloth as possible, in whatever way works. And so you just write and write and write, and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze, and you get all of the material out. And it's in later drafts, when things have been arranged in the right place, that I go back and assess how things work together.
—Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley
Ripley’s criminal activity is presented so matter-of-factly here I almost missed it: ‘it wasn’t grand larceny or tampering with the mails’. Ripley has clearly been up to no good before this first chapter. And right on its tail, Highsmith points out Ripley’s true nature – a manipulative person with the ability to run a con on the wealthy: ‘Tom knew just what to say to a father like Mr Greenleaf.’
Now imagine if Tom Ripley felt remorse in this first chapter, instead of a reprieve from jail. Imagine if Highsmith urged us to pity this morally corrupt creature. It wouldn’t have anything like the same effect. Ripley would be a whiny rule-breaker who deserves to face justice. It would be tiresome and dull.
Highsmith doesn’t judge her creation, and so we (the readers) don’t either. We’re in on the con. We’re off on an adventure, criminal behaviour be damned.
2. Let the character speak.
Let’s look at something more recent – the multi-million-copy bestselling and award-winning novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. In the first line, we meet Eleanor, who immediately tells us her position in the world – unimportant.
When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, dental hygienists – I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people hear the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves – lady doing photocopying, man tapping at a keyboard. I’m not complaining. I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them.
—Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, p.1
Oh, this is a tragic figure, isn’t it? Isn't she? Look at the people who ask Eleanor about her job: taxi drivers, dental hygienists. She could have added ‘hairdressers’ and we’d get the gist – people who are duty-bound to ask personal questions as they go about their work, rather than actual friends or interested parties in her life. Eleanor is a loner. (Perhaps hence the name choice.)
Consider the total absence here of the author’s opinion from the narrative: there is no authorial pity, either in the presentation of the story or in Eleanor’s narration. She doesn’t pity herself. In fact, the world’s lack of interest in Eleanor is great: she doesn’t have to explain the specifics of her very boring job!
As Eleanor details the ins and outs of her daily routine, we learn that Eleanor eats lunch alone (a sandwich from Marks and Spencer on a Friday, ‘which rounds off the week nicely’), talks to no one, then goes home to an empty house where she listens to The Archers and eats food she doesn’t enjoy. The lonely minutiae of her working week is laid bare – and then she describes her weekends.
On Fridays, I don’t get the bus straight after work but instead I go to the Tesco Metro around the corner from the office and buy a margherita pizza, some Chianti and two big bottles of Glen’s vodka. When I get home, I eat the pizza and drink the wine. I have some vodka afterwards. I don’t need much on a Friday, just a few big swigs. I usually wake up on the sofa around 3 a.m., and I stumble off to bed. I drink the rest of the vodka over the weekend, spread it throughout both days so that I’m neither drunk nor sober. Monday takes a long time to come around.
—Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, p.3
Still no authorial judgement. In fact, the only place judgement bleeds into the narrative is when Eleanor is talking about her colleagues, or the doctor she sees about the back pain she’s experiencing due, in her opinion, to the weight of her breasts which she has weighed on her kitchen scales.
My tone went completely over his head. […] That’s the downside to the younger ones; they have a terrible bedside manner.
—Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, p.4
Other characters are treated with scorn, they are judged and found wanting. Eleanor is treated with empathy, albeit matter-of-fact.
3. Introduce the triumphant flaw.
Though we are aware of the shortcomings of Eleanor Oliphant’s existence from the first line, we are less than five pages into the novel when Gail Honeyman hits us with Eleanor’s true character flaw.
I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle.
—Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, p.5
It’s not that she’s an outsider who is lonely, a bit of a quirky oddball misunderstood by others. It’s that Eleanor Oliphant is PROUD of her life. Her character flaw is presented as a triumph.
This is the key to writing a nuanced and artful character flaw: they believe they are in the right.
There is something fascinating about people who wear their shortcomings like a shield. People who say things like, ‘I’m plain-spoken me,’ or‘I don’t suffer fools lightly.’ They name their coping mechanisms rather than putting the finger on the truth. Being ‘plain-spoken’ is being blunt and rude by any other name, isn’t it? And what makes a person blunt and rude? Why do they act that way? Prod it, like a bruise. Underneath that defense, there’s the flaw.
A character who has put walls up so high they are impressed by themselves, whose coping mechanisms have become a source of pride; a criminal relieved he is not being arrested but instead spots opportunity; a character certain the world is wrong and they are right – these are the characters I’ll follow through 350 pages of a novel.
Because when that belief begins to unravel, when their world begins to crumble… what a reckoning they’ve got in store for them.
4. Put the character at odds with their world.
The world around your character is a huge part of designing an artful character flaw. I mentioned this in my blog about high-concept fiction, but again and again I return to the question: who is the worst-placed person to deal with the premise of this novel?
If your book is about the end of the world, a character who over-relies on law and order is the ideal foil to experience the complete collapse of society. What will they do without their Excel spreadsheets? How will they cope? How will they change?
In a novel about solving crime, a flighty and disorganised detective who relies only on gut instinct as their home and professional life unravels… we’ve seen that before, haven’t we? There’s a reason it’s become an archetype of the genre, if in need of a little refresh.
The character is in opposition to the world. Their flaw is in opposition to their quest. They are the worst-placed person to do this thing, and by doing it, they must change. They will grow.
5. Don't fear writing unlikeable characters.
There is, of course, the common complaint that a character isn’t ‘likeable’.
Andy Weir, bestselling author of the stratospherically successful The Martian, recently spoke on his own characters’ likeability on the Write-Off Podcast with Francesca Steele. Regarding his second novel, Artemis, Weir said:
People didn’t like the main character, I made her too flawed, maybe a little unlikeable; a lot of people had a hard time rooting for someone who is so much the agent of her own problems.
In my eyes, likeable does not mean the reader must want to go for beer with that character and swap notes on baking tips and London’s best dog walks. I’m probably never going to ‘like’ a misogynist or a murderer. And if you give me a two-dimensional portrayal of an ‘angry’ or ‘self-pitying’ character then my empathy will likely go even further AWOL.
But if you can present that character to the reader without authorial judgement, if you can make the character believe the way they move through life as a result of their flaw is their strength, and if you keep them unaware of their true flaw until the world crumbles around them and they have no choice but to face their flaw head on (and change)… well, then I will follow that person anywhere, even on their downward descent. We will be invested enough to root for them, warts ‘n’ all, whether that character is charming or unlikeable, good or bad. And hopefully a bit of both!
Author Tutor at The Novelry
Katie Khan is the author of two speculative fiction novels. Her debut novel Hold Back the Stars was translated into 22 languages and is being adapted for film by the producers of Stranger Things. Katie tutors writers tackling speculative, science fiction and fantasy as well as YA fiction at The Novelry.