Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Character Introduction, Part 1 – The Ordinary Joe

She’s a ordinary Jane; he’s an everyday Joe, but they are just about to be forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances. The problem is how to introduce being ordinary. Last week I blogged about why I think it’s a bad idea to introduce a character by showing them going through their mundane, ordinary existence. The myth is that readers identify with people like themselves. Actually, they don’t. Readers relate to strong characters, who display goodness, who act on hard choices because it’s the right thing to do.

We need to introduce a character acting far better than the reader is likely to act. Being like the reader wishes he or she would be on their best day. Screen writer and producer Blake Snyder calls this save the cat.

We all have situations that drive us crazy. Yahoos who sit on their horn the microsecond the light turns green. Plastic packaging that requires a thermonuclear explosion to open. People cutting in front of us in lines. Homeless people asking for spare change.

We’re standing in a long line at the bank. An obviously harried mother, pushing one of those super-sized baby coaches, comes in. We realize how tired she looks, and allow her to take our place in line.

Yet another person asks, “Got any spare change?” We dig in our pocket or purse for a few coins.

Those are kind and generous acts in real life, but completely inadequate for character introduction.

Four Suggestions for introducing ordinary characters

  • The character may be ordinary, but the situation is extraordinary; the stakes are high.
  • The hero is decisive, brave, and human, all at the same time.
  • The outcome doesn’t have to be positive, but it does have to be moving, both in terms of moving the plot forward, and being a moving human experience.
  • The event sets something in motion. It may be a thread running through the story, a minor plot, or even the major plot.

Our heroine goes to a bank. The line is huge, so she decides to go to the washroom before getting in line. Just outside the Ladies Room is a mother settling an infant into that super-sized baby coach. From the bank they hear, “Hands up. This is a robbery.” On the wall is a metal ladder leading to the next floor and safety. Instead of saving herself, our heroine pushes the woman toward the ladder. “Go! Now! Call 911. I’ll protect your baby.” The woman scampers up the ladder, the police arrive, and the robbers are captured.

  • Positive outcome: the mother returns and collects her child. She praises our heroine to the media, and our heroine is suddenly in the public spotlight. As a result, the protagonist is beset by interviews and requests for media appearances through the book.
  • Negative outcome: not only doesn’t the woman call the police — they arrive because a bank employee tripped a silent alarm — but she never returns. Suddenly the protagonist has a child in her care she has no right to have. If we want to complicate matters further, it turns out that this child was kidnapped hours before. Now our heroine has to prove she’s not a kidnapper.

Our hero is fed up with homeless people asking, “Got any spare change?” The next time he gets that question, he grabs the person by the arm, marches him across the street to a high-class restaurant, and buys him for a  meal. “At least this way I know you’ll get fed instead of spending the money on booze or drugs.”

  • Positive outcome: He bonds with the homeless person over the meal, takes an interest in a shelter where the man sometimes sleeps, and falls in love with the woman who runs the shelter.
  • Negative outcome: The homeless person is embarrassed and begs to be allowed to leave. The hero insists he eat the meal. He chokes or has food allergies and ends up in Intensive Care. The lawyer is barred from his favorite restaurant, faces assault charges, and the person he manhandled sues him.

I  hope you’ll come back on Thursday, April 10 for Level Thinking: Remaining Human – are there levels of violence, grossness, and invasion of privacy that cross the line? Should writers respect that boundary?

Next Tuesday, April 15, Part 2 of character introductions — Introducing the Wounded Hero.