I always forgive my authors their first sentence. First sentences subsume 94.73% of the time an author spends on a book—give or take. They are the most over-wrought, over-thought, contorted pieces of writing there is. Don’t get me wrong, first sentences are hard! First impressions are made on first sentences, and when you know that one bad sentence could send your manuscript into the bin—well, it can get a bit intense.
But the secret to making people care is not in your first sentence. Nor is it in your second or third—or any sentence at all, for that matter.
So where is it? The secret’s not in being clever; some of the most addicting stories are far from original, and some of the most original stories can be downright dull. It’s not about writing beautifully, either; some of the best books have the most elementary prose. In fact, simple prose can help thestory. Instead of thinking about the words, you’re just experiencing the story. And it’s not about a mystery that the reader can’t wait to figure out—the very best stories, we read again and again, even if we know the ending.
It’s about creating characters people care about.
Simple enough, right? But it’s a lot harder than it sounds! We don’t like people who are perfect. They creep us out with their perfect hair and perfect nails and perfect smile and perfect “Good Morning” every morning at 7am sharp—we just can’t identify with them. But we don’t like losers either. And even if you have the perfectly balanced character, with appropriate flaws and talents, your story still has to manage to show us that they’re worth caring about, and that their experiences and insights into the world will be worth the investment.
Exceptions aside, there are five basic principles that, if followed, should keep your characters interesting, and your readers, engaged:
- You Can’t Buy [Your Character] Love, no matter how much you pay your readers. But you can show us that your character can care for others and be cared for in turn. Suzanne Collins does this in her first chapter of The Hunger Games with Katniss and Prim. In a starving district, Prim leaves precious homemade cheese out for Katniss, who up until that point has been a somewhat harsh character, showing us people can care for Katniss. And then Katniss volunteers her life for Prim’s when Prim’s name is drawn for the killing Hunger Games, showing us she can return care others give her tenfold. It’s the most efficient creation of empathy I’d ever seen. I was hooked immediately.
- It’s All In Your Head. Okay, so, disclaimer: normally, I don’t think of getting sliced up by razors as the least bit hot—let alone full-on sexy. But when a friend loaned me Kushiel’s Dart… Well, let’s just say I was forced to reconsider—if only for the book. That’s how talented Jacqueline Carey is at keeping us in Phedre’s head—letting us in on her thoughts, feelings, and emotions so that we experience things the same way she does. Never miss an opportunity to show us what your character is thinking or feeling—they are our window onto the world and their reactions to events will shape our experience of the book.
- She’s No Mary Sue. Harry Potter. Bella. Dream. Drizzt. None of these characters is perfect. But because of that, we identify with them. When everyone is flawless, there’s nothing to create friction. And without friction, there’s nothing to create conflict. The very best stories are seeded deep in your characters, in their needs and fears. And that means creating characters with problems.
- But I’m Betting She’s No Plain Jane Either. I can’t think of any books that fit this one. Because I’ve forgotten them.
- Give ’em Hell. What is your character most afraid of? Because that’s what you’re going to do to them; that’s what good stories are made of. Don’t feel bad--you’re an author, you have no choice. What do you think makes Divergent so gripping? When something goes wrong in Beatrice’s test in a post-apocalyptic society, and she realizes that all her worst fears are on the verge of coming true—and forges bravely ahead despite her fears, we’re taken on a wild, adrenaline-laced ride that is anything but boring. I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t have been half so exciting had nothing gone wrong, had she never been afraid, or had everything gone smoothly.
Flash Fiction Practice
Extremely short fiction can be very helpful for practicing new concepts and trying out new techniques. Experiment with creating compelling characters here with this exercise.
- Create a character—give them a name!
- What are three of their fatal flaws?
- What are three of their strengths?
- What are they most afraid of?
- What would they do if confronted with it?
- What do they want more than anything?
- What will they do to achieve it?
- What won’t they do to achieve what they want?
- Who or what do they love?
- Who or what loves them?
Write a quick one-paragraph story idea using the character you just created and, if you’re feeling particularly brave, post it here!