What makes a good character introduction? To me the keys are: 1) you want to give your reader some notion of who the character is, even if that notion isn’t yet quite accurate and complete. And, 2) you want to evoke some sort of emotional reaction.
Inspired by Matt Bird’s whip-smart blog, Secrets of Story, and its downright lovely Ultimate Story Checklist, I’ve put together a checklist of elements that help a character introduction to hit on all cylinders. Let’s see how it works by examining three of the first characters introduced in everyone’s favorite series: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
First, let me explain the questions I’ve chosen to examine for each character introduction:
Is the character active?
By active, I mean not physically active, but decisively active. The character has a goal in mind, even if it’s a small one, and is pursuing it.
Does the action imply something about the character that is important and true?
Being active is good, but being active in a way that is endemic to the character is much better.
Do we have an emotional reaction?
Anything counts here, from sympathy to contempt to laughter.
Does the character have a moment of nobility/moment of humanity?
A moment of nobility is something that makes us admire the character; a moment of humanity is something that causes us to identify with them, to recognize them as a fellow human being. I first encountered this term on Matt Bird’s blog, and I think it’s a really useful thing to keep in mind when introducing your characters.
Is the character’s voice established?
This can be a set of slang they habitually trot out, a level of diction they use, or even just a general attitude toward other characters they address.
Does the character display an intriguing internal contrast?
A tough one to hit, but gold if you can manage it.
Is the introduction visually interesting?
I really struggled with whether to include this question, because the answer, especially in books, is quite frequently “no.” Nevertheless, I think it’s worth consideration, because a visually interesting element really pumps up a character intro and makes it memorable. I think nothing makes this clearer than the Harry Potter intros, which nearly always give you something cool to “look” at.
Now, let’s dive into some Harry Potter. Hagrid, McGonagall, and Dumbledore are all introduced in the same scene, and they all come away deeply interesting and memorable. I’m going by the book version. The movie version is highly similar, but some of the details that made Dumbledore’s intro shine in the book are lost in the movie (ably compensated for by actor Richard Harris’ charismatic presence).
I feel like those checkmarks speak for themselves, and so does the history of the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore and Hagrid were instantly, and eternally beloved by readers. And who can be surprised? Both were built on the bedrock of a dynamite intro.
McGonagall probably has the weakest introduction (she’s mainly here to give Dumbledore someone to talk to until Hagrid shows up). Still, it’s solid, and the character charmed plenty of fans.