Let’s get started!
We want to read about characters that we like, characters we can cheer on. That’s not to say they can’t be flawed or troubled – to me, I like characters where I see a piece of myself. I don’t want them perfect. This likability begins on page one of your novel. The first image we get of the protagonist should allow us to identify with him/her and care. We want this character to win in the end, so we need to know they are special from the very beginning.
I’ve swiped the opening from Tess Gerritsen’s thriller The Surgeon, where we are introduced to her main character on the first page:
Dr. Catherine Cordell sprinted down the hospital corridor, the soles of her running shoes squeaking on the linoleum, and pushed through the double doors into the emergency room.
A nurse called out: “They’re in Trauma Two, Dr. Cordell!”
“I’m there,” said Catherine, moving like a guided missile straight for Trauma Two.
What do we learn about Dr. Cordell from just these few opening lines? While we don’t learn any of her physical attributes, we know that she’s focused and confident. She seems to have a rapport with the people she works with; she’s mobile and practical (running shoes). These few sentences have revealed a lot about this character – enough that we have a picture in our head – in very few words.
The details revealed here are one of the reasons we fill out character questionnaires over and over during NaNoWriMo. Getting to know your character – even if that information never makes it to your book – is vital.
Along with preferences, your main character needs a heroic quality or two. Think about your own personal heroes – start a list. (It helps to actually write this information down.) My current main character has the same heroic trait as one of my friends – she’s fiercely independent. (It took a bit of brainstorming on paper to narrow this down.)
Now apply that quality to your main character on page one of your novel. S/he needs to demonstrate it from the very first scene. For instance, I first noticed that my character is independent almost to a fault when she refused to take advice from a tradesman about a remodeling project. In the very first scene, she is in a hardware store, thanking the owner for his help, but determined to make repairs her own way – right or wrong. It’s an active demonstration of this quality.
Add it to your first scene and then find five or six more scenes before the climax. Brainstorm ways for your character to demonstrate this quality – add it to each scene. Remind your reader that this character is extraordinary and worth cheering for!