No doubt, you already know how to add adjectives and adverbs to Mr. & Mrs. Fashion Forward’s outward appearance, so I will hold off on the physical aspects of first impressions – height, weight, color of eyes, etc. – until the end of this blog. And I am not going to discuss what it takes for your book to make a good first impression on the shelf – cover artwork, font size, colors and the blurb on the back. That is a separate topic unto itself. This blog is about how to utilize three of storytelling’s four fundamental pillars to build the strongest, most vivid first impressions for characters and scenes, on the page:
- Where is this story taking place? (geographical and social settings)
- When is this story taking place? (historically, seasonally)
- Who is it about? (age and wisdom, but not physical appearance)
It is these three spiraling timelines – where, when and who – that I use to create memorable first impressions.
The other pillar – What is happening? – is plot line, which I discussed in July.
Where. Your story’s setting should have a “connection to place” if you want to make a good first impression. Get to know your scenery up close and personal. Visit. If you can’t go, then find that location in Google Maps, click “street view” and see what it looks like. Search “local events” to get a flavor for the eats, beats and treats around the area, and then pick out a feature or landmark that can help cement your story. Scenery is usually set during your book’s slower moments, away from the action, but don’t go crazy here; it’s only minutiae. One or two quick, accurate, local details will do.
Where also indicates social position. Who are your characters’ circle of friends? What are their family and workplace situations like? How do your characters behave in their community? Not that authors needs to tell all of this stuff to make a good story, but they do need to know all of it in order to develop their characters – in character. It is the action of your characters within their social, home and work settings that shows where their motivation lies.
Case in point. In my upcoming novel, Knock Softly (working title), the protagonist, Edvard Bergman, at the age of seven, loses both of his parents in a house fire. That event dictates how he manages his business and his family in the story. There is no prelude. Readers do not know the backstory when Knock Softly opens, 38 years after the fire. First, the reader sees that Edvard has built a fire station on his research campus because the nearest fire department is 12 miles away. At home, Edvard has installed sprinklers in the kitchen and garage ceilings, as well as above the fireplace, a fireplace that’s never been lit. Readers learn that Ed will not allow his children to sleep with locked doors, and that all second story bedrooms have rope ladders. Ed’s demeanor is played out in actions and reactions long before readers learn why he is pyrophobic.
When. In order to write realistic fiction, the author must be in touch with the era in which the story takes place. That is why contemporary suspense is so popular. It’s the easiest for the author to imitate, and it’s the easiest for the reader to follow. Before you write the scene, think about what was really going on at that point in time. Read the local newspaper for around the time of your story and see what everyone was talking about. You just might discover something newsworthy that will help place your story to that time in that town, city or park. Incorporating history and a few seasonal aspects into your background will lend authenticity to your story and make it seem more real.
Watch out for seasonal changes in longer stories, they can cause slipups that are hard to spot by the author. I needed to cut the line “…acorns crunched under his step…” from one scene in Knock Softly because that scene takes place in July. I first wrote it in the fall of last year. At the time, I was attempting to incorporate a soft sound into a quiet walk in the park. It was just minutiae, but I never caught the error until last July, when I was walking my dogs in the park and could not find a single acorn to crunch under foot… Oops!
Who. Very young kids, up to about the age of seven, will believe anything their parents, teachers, guardians and older siblings tell them. That’s why they make lousy protagonists in suspense. On the page, just have very young characters do what their elders tell them and you’ll be fine. But after about age seven, appropriate behavior for kids is the toughest feature of all to nail down. Especially through puberty – when shoe sizes and career goals change overnight.
Be careful what your characters say with older kids on the page – they absorb everything. Gossip, and how children interpret what they overhear, will grab a kid’s attention in a way that telling them directly cannot. It’s, I learned verses you told me, to their young minds. The older we get, the less we trust hearsay and gossip, but to kids it’s golden nectar.
You can use these three factoids to make great suspense between young and old:
- Kids and young adults are constantly looking outward to see what else is available. Adults are ego-focused by their mid-thirties.
- You can’t teach a know-it-all and teenagers already know everything, so they say and do the first thing they think of. A rational adult will take whatever time necessary to make the right decision.
- When confronted with unknown situations, kids become flustered and everything speeds up for them. Adults become keenly aware in unfamiliar situations, and everything slows down.
These transitions do not begin until we gain more confidence in our decisions–twenty-something for most people.
As you start to draw your older characters, imagine you are meeting them for the first time, just like your readers really are. Your character’s life doesn’t begin at this point. You and your readers are effectively dropping in on them. Yet, even though the reader knows very little about the character’s past, there is much they will assume until you tell them otherwise. I have found these assumptions are true with most adults:
- Day by day, our ambitions spiral us onward and upward to bigger and better.
- But in reality, our life becomes focused through a narrower and narrower lens as we gray.
- The older we get, the more we want, but the less we are willing to accept.
Some glues harden quicker than others, but most people set their course in life by thirty-something. That’s not to say life can’t come unglued. Read: midlife crisis. There are tons of suspense and mystery novels built around this time in a character’s life and it is fun, fun stuff to write. Just keep in mind that by midlife most mortal characters know what sorts of things they’re good at, what kinds of people they like to be around and what entertains them. And they go for more, not less, in life’s next chapter.
Exceptions, of course, always make for better stories. Exceptions to the norm that give depth to the storyline can build lasting first impressions, but if the “exception” does not move your story forward, the words are just bulk. That’s true for scenes and character traits.
As for the physical aspects of character, let me ask you: what color were Dracula’s eyes? On which cheek was Capone’s scar? In the Sherlock Holmes series, on which leg did Doctor Watson received his old war wound? Once your characters are fleshed out, you can color their eyes, skin and hair and dress them as you like; it won’t matter. Fangs, scars, limps and the like all make for great imagery, but it is the personality to which these images are attached that readers will remember first and foremost.
Next Month: Not sure yet. Any suggestions? Contact me via the comments section below.
You can! Even in creative non-fiction, although I’m not sure what that means. Characters are only “based” on real people (or events). The author has the right to mix it up, mix up traits and habits of those we know to blend them into the character we want. Just keep true to the phrase “molded in mortal clay” when you flesh them out. It’s keeping them “in character” that makes it real. IMHO. -P
Phil, you’ve given a lot of valuable insight, and it’s somewhat distracting to me. You know I’m working on creative non-fiction, but I’d really like to have some fun with characters I can develop any way I want!
Phil, this is an informative blog that I’ll refer to often as I write my story. I’m still doing research for my historical fiction. Thanks.
Thanks for the different perspective on fleshing out a story. Your tips on research (Google Maps and Local Events) are really clever!