When it comes to writing a good story, plenty of strategy goes into making sure the characters present some cool first impressions.
First impressions are important. If you’ve been alive for even a modest amount of time, you’ve probably heard someone promote that statement before. Heck, you may have said it yourself. Plenty of scientific studies will attest to that truth, as well.
When people meet each other, they make judgments based on what they can see – clothes, posture, accessories, manners, and the like. The first opinion that one forms about another person is so powerful that they may cling to that opinion in the future, even if they later find evidence to the contrary.
As a result, many people try to take care in how they present themselves. They might read instructional articles, to give them a how-to guide on creating a unique first impression. Whether or not you find this idea to be perfectly fine or an annoying trait of humanity, this is how it is.
But enough of real life – let’s talk about stories
This convention is even more important for fictional characters. After all, the first impressions that characters provide are usually more deliberate than what someone does in real life. There is a creator in the background carefully curating the scene. They want to be strategic and precise, deciding which personal traits are most important to show off first.
And that applies to all types of media, by the way. Books, TV shows, movies, anything that has a story. A skilled writer will ensure that a noteworthy character receives a noteworthy introduction – making a splash like a diver in a pool!
A few different names exist for this concept. Some people like to call it the Establishing Character Moment, the same term used by TV Tropes. Some refer to it as the entry scene or the intro scene. Others will call it a character defining moment – though that term might have other uses too. Sometimes a creator even invents a custom lingo that they use in their head.
In any case, the ideas behind the various terms remain the same. If the writer wants the audience to know that a character is clumsy, then that character’s first scene could involve them tripping and falling down the stairs. To brand a character as the shy one, perhaps they will attempt to approach another person but then quickly back out.
At times, it’s enough for the story to just mention someone’s profession. Be they a teacher, artist, politician, celebrity, just about any job will likely spark some associations in the audience’s mind. Location also matters. Meeting someone in, say, a school comes with different assumptions than meeting them in a bar or casino. Outfits are important too, especially in visual media. Giving a character particular accessories like a gaudy dress or a detective’s glass or a personalized cigar will also aid the first impressions.
Again, there’s a big reason why the establishing moment is vital. It affects the audience’s view of the character. It influences how that character will be seen from then on. Much later, when the story is far along its path and nearing its ending, one’s interpretation of a character may still be affected by what they first thought of them in the beginning.
There are tons of ways to introduce a character into a story. Here are some common types.
Just in Time to Save the Day
Even though this type of scene appears all the time in stories, it’s still awesome. Imagine the scenario. Someone is in danger, the chips are down, the fireball or the enemy is approaching, and all looks lost. But then, suddenly, a hero swoops in! They come to the rescue! Cape fluttering in the wind, they punch away the evildoers. Or they fly in and catch the poor soul who was about to fall off a cliff. Depending on the type of story, maybe this hero will show off their cool superpowers. Or maybe they will just be a normal person, still being cool in their own normal-person way.
People love talented characters. They love a hero who can be counted on to save the day. They love to cheer an epic rescue effort, celebrating it like a holiday. A character who makes their introduction by saving someone else comes across as brave, selfless, and strong.
Kick a Puppy
A way to introduce villains! If you’ve got a serious villain on your hands, chances are that you want to show right away how evil they are. They need to look like a threat. They need to look like a contrast and a challenge to the heroes. And what better way than to immediately show their villainy in action?
Have a villain harm an innocent as their first known act. Or maybe get them to damage a village. They could also laugh evilly while going on about how they’re going to rule the world. In more mundane settings, they could act snobbish. Maybe they tell the protagonist that their cute outfit really sucks. Heck, they could even kick an actual puppy! That phrase doesn’t have to be just a metaphor.
Okay, better move on now, before this page falls down the mad spiral into evil . . .
The Morning Routine
Quite a few stories seem to enjoy starting out with a morning routine scene. First, show the protagonist waking up and going through the motions of their morning. And then they exit their home and head to wherever the action will occur.
There exist conflicting opinions on how good the “morning routine” introduction is. On one hand, some say it’s boring. The tedium of daily life has no place in an exciting story. What’s the point in showing the protagonist waking up? Getting dressed? Pouring a bowl of cereal? People do enough of that stuff in real life. Who needs to see it in fiction too? Maybe some will argue that the morning routine shows a character’s personality. Others will say that there is utterly no personality to reveal in a standard bowl of breakfast.
But this sort of scene has its fans too. Some people really enjoy the symbolism of starting the story by having a character start their day. (Maybe it’s the same kind of appeal that makes lifestyle and “get ready with me” videos popular on YouTube.) And some say that it helps to ease the reader into the setting before the events really begin, as a “calm before the storm”. It is true that if a story is heavy on the action, the few slow scenes in between can serve as a welcome break.
Also, to be honest, some people really enjoy reading descriptions of food in books. Yes, even food that exists solely in a fictional realm and will never be eaten by them. Those folks are probably the same ones that tend to enjoy the “heroes just finished a tough battle and are now recovering with food and rest” type of scene. A morning routine scene with breakfast served is not quite the same, but can have a similar feeling.
Here’s a special case that’s certainly worth a mention. Because first impressions matter, many writers will try their best to have a character establish themselves in their early scenes. However, it is also possible to use this strategy to the opposite effect. Use the introductory scene to hide the true personality rather than reveal it. For example, introducing a character who initially seems kind but is later revealed to be cruel. Or vice versa.
Set up well, the revelation can become a splendid plot twist. Not to spoil anything here, but there have been many stories out there that took the gamble and then pulled it off to great effect.
Books Floating in a Pool of Memory
Well then, those are some common trends in character introductions. There are many, many more kinds that one could describe, but trying to get into all of them would be beyond the scope of one article. A whole website would probably need to be dedicated to tracking that. (Actually, in thinking about it, an “opening scene” wiki would be pretty cool.)
So what are some specific examples of introductory scenes? Even for avid readers, some Establishing Character Moments rise above the rest and stand out in one’s memory.
One unforgettable introduction is given to Rosa Hubermann from Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief. Mrs. Hubermann first appears early in the book, when our protagonist Liesel is a young girl about to meet her new foster parents. Like Liesel, the reader knows nothing of what her future caretakers will be like. When Mrs. Hubermann arrives in all her imposing glory and starts swearing in her first lines, it seems as if a child’s worst fears have been confirmed.
And yet, not long afterwards, these fears are soundly reversed. When Liesel finally takes a bath after a big struggle, Mrs. Hubermann gives her a hug and tells her it was about time. Here, the worries dissolve into the water. The reader’s been assured that even though Mrs. Hubermann has some rough manners, deep down she does care about her new daughter and wants to keep her well. Much later in the book, when Mrs. Hubermann continues to scold and raise her voice as per usual, you still remember that hug. You continue to remember that she has kindness hidden beneath it all.
The way that the book sets up certain expectations for Mrs. Hubermann, and then subverts them – that introduction is marvelously neat.
Here’s another one. Love him or hate him, the way that Holden Caulfield introduces himself in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye makes a strong impression. In his opening lines, he starts out by calling his childhood “lousy”, making fun of typical storytelling conventions, and saying to you (the reader) that maybe you want to hear certain things about him – but he will refuse to tell you.
It sets the tone for the rest of the book. Holden brands himself as a guy with an attitude problem. He’s flippant and uncaring toward society. Also, he will keep up this rough style of speech through the rest of the novel.
And yet, despite his complaining, he shows himself to be fairly coherent. He may pepper his speech with a lot of repetition and such, but you can still tell what he’s saying. He even uses figurative language. Also, of course, the fact that he’s got a whole book’s worth of things to say indicates that he will quickly get over his aversion to telling you things.
A character needn’t establish every trait of their personality in their early scenes. That’s impossible anyway. What’s really intriguing is when they reveal some information, but not enough. Leave the potential for mystery. Show the reader a hint that there is more to this character than what initially meets the eye – but you won’t get to satisfy this curiosity unless you read on.
Smoking on a Street Corner
As stated before, character-establishing moments are not just for books! Any medium with a story will need to be mindful of first impressions. That includes movies, TV shows, video games, even songs.
This might seem like a strange example to bring up here, but there is a certain lyric from the song “You Found Me” by The Fray that proves very memorable. They are the opening lyrics, actually. The scene sets up like this: “I found God / on the corner of First and Amistad / . . . / All alone, smoking his last cigarette.”
Can you imagine God standing on a street corner and smoking a cigarette? That idea gives off such a surreal sensation. A lot of people don’t even imagine God as having a physical form, let alone able to stand on the street in plain sight. And he’s smoking a cigarette too, which seems like such a normal-person thing to do. Mortals hang around outside and smoke cigarettes, or maybe even a fancy, customized cigar that they bought from Custom Tobacco. But God? Really? God does that too?
Now, it’s fairly certain that the writer of “You Found Me” did not actually meet God smoking on a street corner and then have a two-sided conversation. Here, God is a character in a song. And the way that the lyrics introduce God is very telling. It instantly indicates the kind of portrayal that God will get throughout the rest of the song.
Lyrically, a major theme of “You Found Me” is questioning the power of God. To start by placing God in a totally mundane setting, doing a mundane activity like smoking, actually hints at this theme. Rather than an all-knowing being, this tale presents God in the same way as a person. It shows that God has already been brought down to Earth in the singer’s eyes.
From Here On
The next time you read a book or watch a movie, perhaps while you lounge at home while sipping on a favorite drink, hopefully you’ll pay special attention to the first impressions. Notice how it affects your interpretations of someone, even later on. It’s interesting to watch how your own opinion of a character changes over time.
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