First Impressions

You’re in a bar. You walk up to the bar, bump into an ex-colleague of yours. He’s there with a guy you don’t recognize: a dark-haired lothario in a sharp blue suit who takes your hand and kisses it, winking slyly.

Or you’re at a job interview. Your prospective boss arrives. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days, her suit is wrinkled, her hand is clammy and limp. On the top of her blouse is a stain of what looks like ketchup.

These moments last minutes — sometimes mere seconds — but in that short span of time you pass a judgement on their appearance, their body language, their mannerisms. First impressions. Love them or hate them, you can’t help make them.

There are thousands of books and articles dedicated to this very subject, counselling the hapless on how to make a good first impression (whatever good may be!). But how does this translate to writing?

I am currently re-reading How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark & Sandra Newman, a tongue-in-cheek guide that not only makes me laugh, but offers occasional insight, too:

The reader knows everyone poos. But if the first thing a character does is poo in front of the reader, the reader will think of him as the Pooing Character forevermore. (Chapter 5, pg. 69)

In real life, you have a chance to reverse or undo first impressions. Not so in books. Fiction has got to be better than reality, remember? The reader’s first impressions of a character are very difficult to change, meaning that the introductory scene is extremely important as it’ll set the tone for the reader’s perception of that character.

Considering the main character is the most important character in your book, it follows that he or she must make a good first impression — good meaning not courteous and polite but good for your intentions, for the way you want to portray him or her.

In the first scene of my WIP novel, my main character is ambushed by an odd stranger on a dark road, who gives her cryptic warnings until she punches his nose and runs away. I hope to convey the fighting spirit that will see her through all the troubles ahead.

What is your main character doing when people first meet him or her?

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13 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. In the novel I’m working on now, the readers meet the main character as he and a fellow passenger interrupt an attempted hijacking on a flight from Singapore to Sydney.

    Things go downhill from there.

    Agreed on the first impression being crucial. If I don’t like the character, or I’m not interested in what they’re doing, I rarely read past the first chapter.

    • It’s always fun to start with a bit of a bang, isn’t it? I’ll admit my first draft had the terrible “main character about on her daily life” fault… I ended up cutting the first two chapters and jumping feet-first into the action and think it works a lot better!

      • Absolutely. First draft had a prologue (wasted space on back story), and, ironically, the main character bumping into the soon to be ringleader in the toilet prior to going through security in the departure lounge.

        I almost had the Peeing Character. Fortunately the first thousand words or so succumbed to the delete key.

        • I can’t say I’ve ever started with a toilet scene… It does make me want to write a story with a character called “Pee” or “Poo” just for comedic value. :-)

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