Lesson 4 -- First impressions
The way a character is first described or shown in a book is very, very important. Note that even if the character isnít on screen, an author can still create a first impression.
For example, how many times have we seen this? ďAll of London was agog with the notion that the scandalous Lord Wrothington was finally returning from the land of the savages.Ē
All the rest of the character follows on that initial moment when the reader is introduced to the character. In the Godfather movie, the initial opening is pardon the pun, picture perfect. The Godfather is shown as a man of honor, who elicits respect from the people who come to him seeking favors. He rights wrongs that the ordinary system of justice cannot.
Michael shows up late to his sisterís wedding -- in uniform. While all the other guests are in suits, he is a man isolated. He even tells his date: ďThatís my family, thatís not me.Ē
And then we see Sonny, the philandering son, having a quickie affair with the bridesmaid at the wedding.
Each of these characters is introduced in a very deliberate manner. The Godfather is a heroic character in the opening, strange when you realize that heís a mobster. The opening of the Sopranoís opens with Tony Soprano not as a mobster, but as a suburban man having a panic attack.
In Doreenís post in the Lesson 1 thread, I mentioned the Indiana Jones example. Jones is shown first as an adventurer, using his whip to fight his way through the cave and the jungle. We see brains, courage, and a little artifact-lust before the next scene opens with tweedy professorial Dr. Jones. If those two scenes had been reversed, would you have bought the premise of adventurer Jones?
When I first wrote my historical, Touched By Fire, there was no prologue. It opened with the hero, an adult, angry at being manipulated and very much determined to have his own way in life. There is a big secret later on that gets revealed, and the editor didnít buy the secret. She told me the hero was too strong to have that be true. So, I revised the manuscript, and started the book with a prologue that shows the hero as a kid, watching his father hang and worry that this is his fate as well. After I wrote the prologue, no one doubted the heroís secret anymore.
First impressions are key for your heroine. She can feel real and flawed, but the reader really needs to see some traits in her that make them root for her or want to like or admire her. In the book, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Laura Kinsale writes an essay on the reader as a placeholder, saying that the readers puts herself in the book as the heroine. I used to poo-poo that theory all over the place. ďI donít want to be the heroine,Ē I would proclaim, but then I began to notice the books that I didnít want to read. Books where the heroine is too far removed from myself. Yes, I know that I can be a super cop (see Eve Dallas), as long as I screw up sometimes and am cranky with people. Sure I could be Jessica Trent. I can be a geeky spinster capable of doing whatever it takes to take care of my family. Itís not exactly that I *become* them, more than I can see myself making those same choices and can wholly identify with the character.
With the hero, life is a lot simpler. The hero can be stubborn, arrogant, even dishonest or a whoredog, but as long as there are women in the world who love him, or men who admire him, or we see the vulnerability inside him, then we readers will forgive him almost anything.
So thatís all on first impressions. If youíre getting comments on your manuscript that the character is unlikable or isnít who you had imagined them to be, reread the first appearance (or first time they are talked about, whichever comes first) and see if you canít spot the problem. I remember in one book, my editor told me that she didnít like the hero and I couldnít figure out why. She kept referring to one scene, but there was nothing awful in the scene, he was very much a guy-guy, but then I found the *one line of internal narrative* that was hitting her wrong. I changed *one line of internal narrative* and after that, she loved him. Please note that she never pointed to that one line, because most people canít point to a specific problem if something is not majorly off. Only when it ticks them majorly off can they say *THERE! FIX THAT!*.