In a novel, you have more characters, more storylines, and it’s entirely possible that the viewpoint character won’t be the main character, at least not all the time. (In some novels, the bad guy can be the viewpoint character throughout, but we’re talking about basics here.) In a short story, the viewpoint character is probably going to be the main character, and there will probably only be one viewpoint character.
Thus, for a novel, the opening scenes need to introduce an important character, but it needn’t be the main character for the novel. In a short story, it’s the viewpoint character being introduced. In a novella or middle length work, it could go either way.
There are some things I need to know about the character within the opening scenes. A few are physical – gender, rough age range, maybe one or two details such as hair color. Also, be aware that if the whole issue of the story is gender, or in some other way it’s important not to show some aspect of the character’s physical reality, that’s fine – there are no rules, only guidelines.
One of the challenges of first person perspective is that it makes physical description a little more difficult. It’s not very believable that a character would stand around thinking how pretty their green eyes and red hair are, and the old mirror trick is a cliche that (like most cliches) can have new life breathed into it, but it’s not always easy. However, age range and gender can be indicated by surroundings, especially in a real-world-adjacent space-time setting, and comparison can be a handy way to describe a first-person character.
The most important things I need to know about the character are not physical. The most important thing about a character in a story is his or her outlook, way of seeing the world – especially since that is what makes the character my guide through the tale. This is easily shown in a few words, but must be consistent with the rest of the story.
If the character sees a hurt dog, what’s their reaction – do they stop and help? Or does fear of dogs make them step back, and if so, do they raise a lip in disgust and hurry away, or go to the neighbor’s house and call for help from someone who likes dogs? If the character gets a phone call, do they respond with joy and interest in the person calling, whoever they might be, or prefer not to answer at all? These simple reactions reveal the character’s outlook on the world.
Does your viewpoint character need to be likable? Let’s say it’s one of those guidelines. Your character should be likable – though certainly not perfect – unless you have a really good reason why you’re not doing it that way, and a really good way to compensate for that. (For example, if your main character is a massive jerk, he needs to be very well written, a jerk for real reasons, with depth – and the rest of the story needs to be overwhelmingly good to keep me reading.)
I’ve written some examples wherein the reader learns some things, physical and nonphysical, about the viewpoint characters. Assume these aren’t necessarily the very first words of the story, but are well within the first scene or two.
EXAMPLE: The young man shook his head, raked his curls out of his face and bent over the computer innards. Lisa watched the curls fall right back down into his eyes and closed her wrinkled fingers tightly over her purse strap to stop herself from putting his hair right. She was too much older than he for that gesture to appear other than motherly. He’s here to fix the computer, not gaze deeply into my cataracts, she told herself, and took one step back so she couldn’t smell his cologne anymore. He glanced up, probably wondering why she appeared so nervous for an old maid. “Would you like some tea?” she heard herself offer helplessly.
EXAMPLE: Without a moment’s hesitation, he snatched his blade from the stand and took up a lunge position. To prevent this ridiculous display of temper coming to anything like blows, even with the blunted fencing foils, I dropped my own and pulled my mask off. He did the same, his black hair tousled around his glaring blue eyes. As long as he wasn’t angry, his curls did him great service with the ladies, but his face always got rather redder than mine, despite my fairer complexion and straighter hair. I held the mask out at arm’s length and let it fall to the carpet, spurning it with my foot so that it rolled leadenly toward him. “You always were hasty, brother,” I said and turned away. “This wedding will happen,” I reminded him over my shoulder. The crash of breaking furniture attended my steps as I ascended the stair.
EXAMPLE: Davis used the key hung around his neck, rather than those on his heavy janitor’s keychain, to open the padlock. Inside, the sun shone through veiled pink curtains, dazzled off the sequins on the lampshade, and glanced off the button eyes of a hundred stuffed animals. A little girl’s picture hung in pride of place over the ruffled bed, a little girl with the same hazel eyes and white-blonde mop Davis had when he was that age. After a moment of holy, quiet contemplation, he reached out to the bedpost and caressed the fur-lined shackle that hung there. “Someone will live here one day,” he whispered, and the sunlit silence took his words and ate them.
Okay, so that last example kinda went south a bit, but hopefully you get my point. In each example, something is shown of the character’s looks and age range, but more is shown of their nature. The language used by the viewpoint character’s narration is different in each case. In the first two examples, one third person and one first person, I’ve let you deeper into the character’s head. In the third example, I have a secret, so I don’t let you too close until you get to the end.
In each example, I’ve also tried to give some hint at a reason to continue reading – a hook. Will Lisa embarrass herself before her computer gets fixed, and why is she so easily swayed by a young man? Why does one of the fencing brothers get so angry and why doesn’t he want the wedding to happen? For the love of God, is somebody going to stop Davis in time?
In the final article of this series, we’ll talk about what constitutes a hook, why it doesn’t have to be as important as it sounds, and how to craft an exceptionally pointy one.