By J.J. Hensley
Although I have had a few books published, I rarely feel as if I am qualified enough to give anybody writing tips. However, one suggestion I feel comfortable giving is not to rush when introducing your protagonist, especially in a standalone novel or the first in a series. Sure, you need to provide some basics at the outset, but slowly revealing aspects of a character’s background and mental processes keeps the reader turning the pages in order to learn more about the complex person the author has created.
Sometimes writers love the idea of their protagonist so much, they will spew out everything possible about the character in the first few chapters. Sharing too much too soon can overload readers with information, or even scare them off. This is not a good way to get to know someone. It will not work in your writing just as it will not work on a blind date. Imagine you are meeting someone for the first time and your hopes are high, but this happens:
You: “Hi, it’s great to finally meet you. Ted speaks very highly of you. Have you been to this restaurant before?”
Your date: “It’s my favorite. I’m allergic to shellfish and they don’t serve that here. This one time, I was on a date with my ex—he was a bodybuilder, by the way—and I accidentally tried some lobster bisque, and you should have seen the rash I got. It was everywhere. My ex, who ended up being a total jerk, totally freaked out and called an ambulance. My mom showed up at the hospital and gave me a huge lecture. She’s allergic to shellfish too. And peanuts. Which is funny, because I’m an accountant for Planters and they sell a ton of peanuts. I’ve been with them for three years and worked for GE before that. But, there was this supervisor named Shelly, and she was a complete bitch to me in the lunch room one day, and I decided to not put up with that type of behavior. Something you should know about me right off the bat is that I stand up for myself. And my sisters too. I have three sisters, but they don’t live around here. One lives in…”
Yeah. By now you would be debating making the little “check please” gesture to the nearest waiter or possibly wondering if the butter knife on the table might be sharp enough for you to slit your own wrists. That is what happens when a reader picks up a book and the details of the main character’s life are fired at point blank range from a confetti cannon. The reader will want to take cover, flee, and never come back to any book you have written.
Instead, try revealing the protagonist’s characteristics through the actions he or she takes as the plot unfolds. This will help you show, not tell, the reader while forcing you to space out your character’s life story. Ask yourself what the reader really needs to know about the hero in the opening chapters. If a piece of information is not absolutely essential to the initial development of the plot, then maybe divulging it can wait until later in the story. If fact, you may decide it is not important at all and exclude the information altogether. With the passage of time comes perspective, especially with the creation of your characters.
So, try introducing your character throughout the entire book. With the right pacing, you may even be revealing information about the protagonist in the final pages. Your readers will feel curious and comfortable and it is possible that even you will become more appreciative of the potential depth of your protagonist along the way. With a little practice and perhaps some luck, your writing will get a lot of repeat dates. Maybe with multiple people. It may possibly get passed around clubs that meet every few weeks.
Okay, this is getting awkward.
J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.
To learn more about J.J. Hensley’s latest novel, click on the cover below: