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Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make With Character Introductions

On Character Introductions

Character introductions are super-important in good writing, whether it’s a novel or screenplay. A well-crafted character introduction provides context and relevance, which means the audience can connect with the characters on a deeper level. What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, character introductions are often where writers stumble, which in turn affects the rest of the story. For the five biggest mistakes writers make with character introductions, check out the following … ready? Let’s go!

1) Laundry List Intros

This is probably one of my ultimate pet peeve character introductions in both scripts and unpublished novels because it’s SO common. Instead of giving us a ‘feel’ for the character, writers will launch into a list of what they’re wearing.

Yes, yes, this *can* work, especially for strong ‘looks’ that communicate something, such as gang affiliations or punk hairstyles. However 9/10 I am treated to a laundry list introduction like, ‘white tee shirt, jeans, she looks fresh’.

What does that tell us about the character’s personality or motivations? Answer: it doesn’t! MORE: 3 Top Tips On Describing Your Character’s Appearance

2) Random Info Introductions

This one has started to crop up more recently, almost exclusively in screenplays. By random info introductions, I mean stuff like this:

  • ‘LAURA, a ponytail woman’ 
  • ‘MIKE, a forty-something man’ 

First up, what is a ‘ponytail woman’?? I’d never seen this description before about a year ago, but now it seems to pop up all the time in scripts I’m seeing.

I guess the writers believe a ponytail communicates *something* … but it’s a basic hairstyle that anyone can do though. So does this mean Laura is a beige, bland ‘basic b*tch’ as Gen Z would say? Because that’s a MUCH more interesting descriptor!

Age is just a number … and that’s never more true than in character introductions. I don’t care how old Mike is, I care about WHO he is. Never forget that. Demonstrate this by WHAT he is doing when we meet him!

Oh and while we’re on the subject of random info, remember … Never, ever, EVER use the ‘word of doom’ when you introduce your female characters.

3) Doing Something DULL

This is when a writer knows behaviour can be key to a good character introduction … but they have the character doing something DULL as that introduction. Here’s the top ones I see on a regular basis:

  • A character walking down the street
  • Or in their kitchen (especially cooking, or singing or dancing to the radio)
  • Waking up and getting ready for the day (especially looking in mirrors)
  • A character at a funeral
  • A character at work (especially in front of a computer)

Obviously any of the above can work, but at foundation level, they are so VANILLA that writers need to dig deep. After the jump, I’m going to give examples of two of the above that HAVE worked.

Eg. With reference to walking, think of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever

Yes, it starts with him walking, but it’s so much more than that. He’s STRUTTING for starters, in his going-out finery … and he’s carrying a paint can??

Now that’s interesting, why would he be carrying something like that when he’s clearly going for a night on the town?? (See?? There’s the difference).

FYI, authors need to think about this, too!

There are waaaaaay too many unpublished novels that open on characters doing boring things. This is because the writer is too caught up in ‘setting the scene’ or info-dumping everything about their storyworld.

Even if the book starts with a moment of quiet, there needs to be a good reason for this.

Consider the novel Divergent

This novel opens with Triss having her hair done by her mother. It’s the day of The Choosing Ceremony and Triss’ mother asks her if she would like to look at her reflection in the mirror. This is NOT boring, but a key moment of exposition.

This is because Triss and her Mother belong to the Abnegation Faction, which means they deny themselves and must self-sacrifice. This means Abnegation members don’t look in mirrors as standard, but this is a special occasion.

This short introduction tells us not only about who Triss and her mother are, but also how the storyworld works.

4) ‘Hidden Name’ Introductions

This one gives me full-on rage. Too often, writers ‘hide’ who characters are, seemingly for no reason at all. This can happen in both spec scripts and unpublished novels.

The writer will introduce them as  MAN or WOMAN, then tell us their name in the dialogue and switch to that.

Why?? It’s inexplicable and creates confusion. (Note: I am NOT talking about ‘unnamed characters’, such as BOY and GIRL in Wind Chill. Consistency – in anything – is fine).

Another that does my swede in is when the character has an alias or nickname, so the writer uses these concurrently. As a result, I end up worrying I have missed a character (or even two). Eeek!

5) No introduction AT ALL!

Eesh. SERIOUSLY!

Look, introducing characters does not necessarily require a lengthy exposition. Instead, remember a well-crafted character introduction helps immerse the audience in the storyworld and makes the characters more relatable and compelling.

BONUS!!

Extended Character Introductions

Too often characters are introduced and introduced and introduced … THEN the story ‘really’ begins.

This results in what I call a ‘top heavy’ draft, whether you’re writing a script or a novel. (You may have heard this phenomenon called an ‘info dump’ too).

But here’s the thing: good characterisation and plotting go hand in hand. It’s no good to introduce us to the characters and THEN the plot starts. This means we need to meet the characters in whatever situation they find themselves in.

As I always say on this site …

We don’t watch or read stuff ‘about characters’ … We watch or read stuff about characters who DO SOMETHING for SOME REASON << that’s character and plotting, hand in hand.

So stay away from extended character introductions. They’re so common in the spec pile, which means that if you DON’T do this, you immediately stand out. (Really!).

Last Points

Good character introductions can be achieved by carefully selecting traits or characteristics that …

  • Push the story forward
  • Reveal key aspects of the character’s identity

Look at all your favourite characters in novels, movies or TV shows. Study how they are introduced – make a list of what they’re doing and how we know things about them. Before long, you will have a ‘cheat sheet’ for great characterisation.

Good Luck!

How To Write Kickass Characters In Your Novel Or Screenplay

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3 thoughts on “Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make With Character Introductions”

  1. Great information. I find I tend to the “laundry list” in drafts. Why? Who knows. Maybe because to me the clothes matter? Anyway, I agree. The character needs to be doing something that shows who they are. This is one of those things I wish I knew when I began writing and this came at a time when I needed a reminder of how to introduce a character.
    Thank you.

    1. Same – I know I was obsessed with clothes when I first started writing too! I think it’s so common as to be ‘the norm’ … but then of course, that’s why it can be so difficult to stand out in the pile!

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