Tuesday, June 05, 2012

First Impressions in Fiction

By Diana Peterfreund

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'm thrilled to welcome author Diana Peterfreund to the blog today. It's hard not to make a clich├ęd joke about first impressions, but they really do matter, especially to readers. You want to impress them with your skills, your story, but most of all--your characters. And Diana is here to tell us how to do just that.
Diana is the author of eight novels for adults and teens, as well as several short stories. Her newest book, FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, is a post-apocalyptic retelling of Jane Austen’s PERSUASION. And if you haven't picked up her killer unicorn tale RAMPART yet, I highly recommend it.

Take it away Diana...

If first impressions are important in real life, they are absolutely vital in fiction. A character’s initial appearance on the scene will leave an indelible mark in the reader’s mind. Flub it, and you’ll spend the rest of the book trying to make up for the mistake you made in characterization. Nail it, and the character may later perform all manner of transgressions, because the reader will know, deep down, who the person truly is.

Is the introduction of your main character getting the job done, or is it obscuring the message you’re trying to get across?

True Blue 

In my upcoming novel, FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, the first time you meet heroine Elliot North, she is rushing across the her family farm, on a mission to save a field of wheat from being heedlessly plowed under by her capricious father. She speaks to servants, all of whom express that they know both that she was the one to go to with this problem, and how upset she’ll be by the discovery. Everyone who reads the scene knows:
  • Elliot is dedicated to her farm.
  • The servants trust her and look to her instead of to her father.
  • Her father’s a jerk and she has to tiptoe around him.
I never need to show another scene of Elliot physically working on the farm again – the reader believes her dedication and her relationship with the farmhands. And that’s the impression I want readers to keep in the back of their minds –the essential Elliot, the one they will root for as the story continues.

This approach works best in stories where it’s important that the reader feels an immediate simpatico with the main character. Show their main conflict, or vulnerability, or trouble, or what she is facing. In THE HUNGER GAMES, the first time we see Katniss, she’s not being her prickly, anti-social self. She’s hunting food for her family.

The Switcheroo 

Sometimes, however, you want to do the opposite. Do you know that the original title of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions? That’s because the story, essentially, is a long effort by the author to change the first impression the main character and the reader got of Mr. Darcy. When we meet Mr. Darcy, he’s proud, disagreeable, unfriendly, snobby–all the things that Lizzy and we hate. But, over the course of the story, we, Lizzy, and even Mr. Darcy, begin to see the error of our ways.

This approach works best in stories that have the flavor of redemption stories, where the character either changes over time, or our take on him does. Another great example of this is Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. We are introduced to Ebenezer at his meanest and most unlikeable, so we can take the same journey that he does. Another great example is Melvin Udall, the Jack Nicholson character in AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Odious, homophobic, and obsessive compulsive – our first impression is so foul that it’s amazing we root for him by the end of the film.

Many Faces 

One of the most challenging approaches of character introductions is when you’re facing a character who has conflicting facets to his personality. However, done right, this method can be structured so as to show you what is the core essence of this character, as compared to the other parts of their personality. I recently re-watched the first episode of MAD MEN, which is structured so that you don’t find out that on top of everything else Don Draper is: ad man, lothario, brilliant but jerky – he’s also apparently a family man with a housewife and two kids in the suburbs. You see him at his work, in bed with his mistress, dealing with office politics, fighting his own inner demons, and then, finally, after all that, you see him in his children’s bedroom. Now you know where his family ranks in his life: dead last. And what do you see first? Don, sitting alone in a bar, trying to suss out why consumers make the choices they do.

Another classic example of this approach is Indiana Jones. The first scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is not the one where you see Professor Jones in class, lecturing in a suit and tie. Oh no – the true Indy, the real one, is the one with the whip and hat in the jungle. Outrunning boulders and other dangers in search of precious artifacts. We have to see this Indiana or we won’t truly understand what he’s about. He’s a professor, yes, whatever, but first and foremost, he’s a pirate.

Finding a Balance

In my fantasy novel RAMPANT, I was faced with this dilemma. I chose an opener meant to evoke the tropes of a classic horror movie–a girl and a boy in the woods, making out, when a monster attacks. I also chose to set the scene at a babysitting job the heroine was doing, so I could play around with the little girly image that unicorns have, versus the bloody reality. However, these goals massively conflicted with the core characterization of my heroine, Astrid, who is a serious, scientifically-minded and ultimately dutiful girl who in actuality, probably wouldn’t ditch her babysitting charges to go make out with her boyfriend in the woods. Due to that choice of opener, I had to spend a lot of time convincing readers that Astrid is actually a lot more responsible and smarter than she comes across in that opening scene. Though I love it’s classic horror-movie style, if I had to do it over again, I might have chosen another venue (maybe a neighborhood barbecue, where Astrid could have interacted with children and also found the opportunity for a private woodside makeout scene). Hindsight is 20/20.

In my recent WIP, I have tried three different openers–the character is a tricky one to pin down, and I want to have it exactly perfect.

Today, think about how you introduce your character. What are you saying about him or her to the reader, the very first time they meet?

About For Darkness Shows the Stars

Generations ago, a genetic experiment gone wrong—the Reduction—decimated humanity, giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Eighteen-year-old Luddite Elliot North has always known her place in this caste system. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family’s estate over love. But now the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress and threatening Luddite control; Elliot’s estate is floundering; and she’s forced to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth—an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliott wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she abandoned him.

But Elliot soon discovers her childhood friend carries a secret—one that could change the society in which they live…or bring it to its knees. And again, she’s faced with a choice: cling to what she’s been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she’s ever loved, even if she has lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.


  1. Great tips! That has been the toughest thing for me in my current WIP: introducing the main character so I can take the reader the rest of the way with her, cheer for her, and suffer with her.

    Thanks for the tips and congrats on the new book. It sounds fabulous!


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  3. Great thoughts, thank you. The Mad Men example is excellent; it hits you so hard, that scene with the kids. Don is such a difficult character, he's such a jerk. It's amazing the how the series crafts stories that elicit any sympathy for him. And similarly, I like how Betty has her faults... not that this was a post about Mad Men!

    I love the idea of a post-apocolyptic retelling of Persuasion! Austen's other books seem to get all the attention (well, maybe not Mansfield Park), and I had to think for a sec what the original premise was. Looking forward to checking out your book.

  4. Very helpful post! Thank you so much, Diana and Janice. And For Darkness Shows The Stars sounds so good I just pre-ordered it! :)

  5. Great advice. It may sound shallow, but for me the cover picture of a book can make a big difference too if it has a picture I don't like of the hero/ine. Forever I envision them that way and it can really influence my relationship with them.

    For Darkness Shows the Stars sounds like a fabulous book, I adore Persuasion so am going straight out to get this version :-)

  6. This is such an important topic though I have to sheepishly admit, I hadn't thought about it until now. How we meet our characters to begin with should show the starch they're really made from. Thanks for the tips!!