Characters are the lifeblood of a story. They drive the plot forward, guiding the audience through the events of the story as they themselves live it. Through them, the audience enters the world of the story.
But they don’t just pop up out of nowhere. Your audience won’t immediately know who your characters are. So, just like in real life, you need to introduce them.
And just like real life, that is much easier said than done.
There are many ways to handle introducing your character. Which method you take depends on the type of story you’re telling. Perhaps you want to wreath them in mystery and slowly pull away at the layers. Or maybe you want your audience to know exactly what what this person is about from the moment they meet them.
Generally, there are three things you need to establish quickly. By the end of a character’s first scene, the audience needs to know at least one of these three things. I went over them briefly in my article about Inigo Montoya. In case you haven’t read that, allow me to explain.
- The character’s name
- The character’s goal
- The character’s backstory
At the very least, the audience should have a vague answer to those three things. Or, if you’re feeling honest and straightforward, you could just hit them with all three at once and make it clear right away.
A fantastic example of the ladder is Son Goku. In the first chapter of Dragon Ball, you get everything you need to know about him. He’s an honest idiot with monstrous power and a titanic appetite. We see this in how he wanders the mountains around his home, in his interactions with Bulma, and his childish stupidity. Right away, you know everything you need to about him.
- His name is Son Goku
- He wants to be as strong as he can be
- He was raised in the mountains by his late grandfather
An excellent case of the latter, wherein a character is wreathed in mystery, can be found in the Witcher books. Geralt’s introductory scene isn’t exactly a heroic one. He walks into a bar, tries to find someone, and gets attacked, so he cuts down his assailants in cold blood. Not exactly what you’d call starting off on the right foot.
But it does create questions in the audience’s mind. Who is this figure? Why does everyone hate him? We know that he’s looking for someone, so we’re at least aware of an objective. But that leaves the question: why?
That mystery compels the audience forward. Then, by the end of the next scene, we get the answer to the two of the three points. Those being:
- His name is Geralt and he’s a Witcher
- He’s here on a job to kill a monster
The final point, his backstory, is one that we get a few hints at throughout his various stories. But we get just enough of it in his first outing to get the general gist of it.
Introducing the character themselves is the easy part. But then comes the hard part: getting your audience to like or dislike your character. After all, just knowing about the character isn’t enough to make the audience care. To do that, you need to make them feel something. Give them something to latch onto.
Take Deku from My Hero Academia. Not only does his introduction nail all three of the central points, but it shows off his shy but caring nature, as well as his… less than favorable social status. Right off the bat, we know that he’s an underdog with a heart of gold. It’s simple, sure, but it’s enough to make you root for the character.
Conversely, let’s look at Orihara Izaya from Durarara. He makes a few mysterious appearances before he steps out into the moonlight. But what’s the first thing he does? He admits to having a teenage girl kidnapped, makes fun of her for being mad at her parents and depressed, then not so subtly pushes her towards suicide. All the while, he dances and laughs as if he’s having the time of his life. A perfect way to make your audience hate your antagonist.
Or love him. Dude’s got charisma, if nothing else.
That’s the troubling balancing act of a character introduction. How do you get crucial information across without being boring? How do you get your audience to like/dislike them? It’s a tightrope that requires some practice to perfect.
Especially since a character’s introduction is often the starting point of your story. The events that transpire there will often effect everything to come in dramatic ways. Thus, you need to ask yourself more than just the aforementioned questions. You need to think about the where, the when, and how those two dominos will knock down all the others.
Is it a difficult task? At times, yes. But when done well, it can serve as a phenomenal launching point for your characters and the story they live in.