Meeting A Main Character

Novels open in many ways, but one thing novels do is present a main character. As a character is introduced, readers begin to gain information about the person, knowledge that helps them understand who the person is and what’s important to him. You get an idea of his goals, motivation, and conflicts.

Though readers learn much from, physical description, mannerisms, introspection, and dialogue, they learn even more as writers focus on six other pieces of information that opens the readers’ eyes to better understanding of the person they want to root for as the story progresses. What opens readers eyes is learning the emotional and personal purpose of the character in the scene, his goals, motivation and his fears, desires and depth of concern and stumbling blocks for reaching his goal. So you need to establish these topics early in the chapter.

Emotional and Personal Purpose
How invested is this character to the opening event? What has happened that connects you to the character and his purpose for being there. Is it obvious he will be the love interest of a woman who will appear soon in the story? Are you certain he is the detective who will solve the crime and grow as a person? Does this lonely woman offer enough to let you guess that she will find friends or family and never be lonely again? With these questions in mind, as you build your character provide a taste of the character’s investment in the inciting incident.

Example from Dreams Of His Own     Quinn O’Neill shifted in reverse as he checked his rear and side view mirrors at the ACO Hardware. He lifted his foot from the brake and inched backward from the parking spot, his mind filled with the numerous repairs needed to return his home to what it must have looked like ninety years ago when it was new. Too bad repairing himself wasn’t as easy, but money wouldn’t fix him.

Life weighting his mind, Quinn’s thoughts ended when a thud and crunch of metal jarred his SUV. He slammed on the brake and jammed the gear into park, then bolted outside eyeing a car embedded in his back quarter panel, the shiny black paint gouged and buckled against the woman’s dark red sedan.

She glared at him from the driver’s window, her eyes narrowed as determination set in her jaw. She pushed open her car door with a dramatic sweep and slammed it. “Look what you’ve done.” Her arm swung toward the damage. Shattered glass from the tail light dotted the asphalt, and her trunk lid had sprung loose from the lock.

Trying to monitor his frustration, he shook his head. “It wasn’t my fault. I checked my mirrors.” He peered back at her. “More than once.” Yet in the back of his mind, he knew he’d been distracted by his thoughts. Could he have been careless?


As you review this example, notice what pieces of information readers can learn from the opening incident that has now changed Quinn’s life. First readers hear about his new home that needs refurbishing and they note from his thought that he, too, seems to need refurbishing. The narration indicates he is a careful driver, checking his mirrors, but lost in thought, he fears he might have been to blame for the accident after all. Notice, too, that the female appears on the defensive. Though Quinn joins in the denial he was to blame, he acknowledges he had been distracted…even careless.
When writers can provide this kind of information in the first words of the novel, she has already begun to invest the reader in the story.

At this point, the first goal of Quinn is to handle the situation, realizing he may be at fault. Obviously this is not the goal of the novel since we’ve already learned an even greater goal. Quinn wants to refurbish his home, and even more important for readers, he realizes he needs refurbishing. This adds a new element to the opening. It arouses readers’ curiosity and leads them to ask questions. Why does he need to be refurbished? What has happened to cause these feelings?

Depth of Need
The first question of readers why does he need to be refurbish? Why is it so important? Doesn’t he like himself? What would happen if he doesn’t change but remains the same? What investment does he have in change? What is the stake? What are the consequence if he doesn’t change? That question is significant he letting us see what a character has to gain or lose? Readers already know that life weighs on Quinn’s mind, that he is aware he needs to change. That alone helps them sense that the need is significant since his joy of life and happiness could be affected with his failure to reach his goal.

Fears and Desires
These two elements will become more obvious and even deeper once the story begins. The opening scene introduces a problem but later, when readers know the characters more fully, they will learn far more than the opening scene provided. Sometimes the character doesn’t want to admit his desires and even more so his fears.

But readers gain a little understanding of desire in the opening scene and perhaps even a hint of fear. Quinn wants to change but he feels helpless. He knows it is a difficult task. This provides a desire and a major one since it’s an internal problem and not one easily resolved. From his need or goal to change, we can assume that his fear would be that he cannot. What would that do to his life? Readers don’t know that yet, but as the story progresses they will, and they will understand the importance of the change.

The woman’s fears and desires are not as vivid. Readers can guess that she wishes the accident hadn’t happened, and he might fear that she had been to blame and he will realize it. Since the reader doesn’t know her background yet, they can’t grasp the fears and desires fully, but once they get into the novel, her needs and wants, her fears will be evident. She’s a widow with a teenaged son dealing with a serious disease, now in remission. She doesn’t have money to waste on auto repairs and many more problems that affect her fears and longings. But that comes later.

Stumbling Blocks and Motivation
Issues that holds characters back from reaching their goals are vital to a good story. These are the challenges they must face that must be overcome to resolve what holds them back. At this point, we do not know, but we get a taste of the characters personalties as the scene evolves and some of the problems will become obvious. Problems—conflicts and crises—is what grabs readers and keeps them reading a novel. They want to know and they will cheer on characters they get to know as the story progresses.

What motivates characters to want or need the goal they are after is another issue not known in this short scene opening. Readers could only guess. One hint for the woman is she’s at a hardware store. We think of the men of the family shopping in a hardware stores, but some women do like to make repairs, some are skilled, so this small piece of information might go unnoticed. Hardware stores sell many things that don’t involve major repairs as well. But this might lead a reader to question if the woman is single.

The motivation for change reveals a deeper understanding of what characters are facing. It also allows the reader to weigh how serious and deep this need or want is, and they begin to try and guess what happened in the character’s life to result in this motivation.

The opening scenes, even the opening paragraphs set up a story that can capture readers interest and draw them into the life of the characters where they will often relate to their struggles and become a supporter, one who cheers them on to victory or success. When authors begin their novel, it’s wise for them to study the opening scene and see if it provides a picture of the important elements of the novel that will grab readers and hang on.


Leave a comment
  1. Jill May 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    This is just what I needed today, Gail. You have a talent for making things so clear. All of your posts are so valuable…thank you.

  2. Gail Gaymer Martin May 14, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Hi Jill, Thanks so much. I’m uncanny perhaps.
    🙂 I thought it has some good tips that will help us all give more thought to things we take for granted when introducing our characters. We can do so much for in a very easy way.


  3. Jackie Layton May 22, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    Hi Gail,
    What a great post. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

  4. Alexis August 3, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    Oh wow, I loved this post! Such great advice!

    It definitely helps me as a writer! 🙂

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