Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: Character Intros and Outros.
‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.’ Lyrics from a song by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields for their musical, ‘Seesaw’ are the inspiration for my blog post today. It’s all about openings and closings and in particular, how you introduce a character and how you say goodbye to them. Or, put another way, how the reader first meets them and the reader’s last sight of them before closing the book.
Why is this important? Because first impressions count, and a parting impression lasts. How to write screenplays books talk about the importance of a viewer’s first sight of a character, how, for example, you may see his/her back view first, and then he/she will slowly turn to the camera and give a sultry look, or how your first sight of the macho hero might be him jumping from a helicopter while firing a gun, blah, blah. It makes an impression, and the same works in a novel, only with more subtlety.
What can a Character Intro Say?
A great deal. Considering how you introduce a character is important because it’s an opportunity to show many things in a memorable moment. You can tell/show a reader so much about your character from a few lines, and here’s an example taken from the first two chapters of ‘Deviant Desire.’
Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.
Those are the opening lines of the series (without the prequel). They not only tell us Silas was destitute, but that he was in the East End and willing to search gutters for money. We also, hopefully, want to know why, who the other man is, and how is Silas’ fate being sealed.
Turn to chapter two and we meet Archer (Lord Clearwater), for the first time in an entirely different way.
Logs crackled in the iron grate, sending sparks heavenwards and waves of warmth across a sea of Turkish rugs. The fire-glow washed up on the slippered feet of the newly elevated Viscount Clearwater. Archer Riddington, a man in his late twenties, was seemingly drowning in the depths of a sumptuous wingback chair. His hands were draped over the worn armrest where his fingers undulated like kelp in a current as he pondered what to say next.
Warmth, Turkish rugs, comfort, riches… A contrast to the first chapter, Archer’s intro sets up the world of above stairs and below, rich and poor, that is the background to the time of the novel, and the 1800s. It also gives us his two names, but that’s another matter.
And as for Andrej, aka Fecker, I think he has one of my favourite intros.
Silas had deliberated at this window so often that some good had come of his indecision. That good appeared beside him, bringing the smell of apples and the reflection of a tall man of similar age.
‘Privet, Banyak,’ he said in his native tongue.
‘Evening, Fecks.’ Silas acknowledged his mate’s reflection with a nod towards a marble angel.
I like it because the image I have after reading it is of Fecker as a statue with angel wings because his reflection is superimposed over the statue inside the undertaker’s shop. Fecks turns out to be strong, gentle, kind and handsome, and I wanted him to appear in a slightly mysterious way.
Intros don’t apply only to main characters. Even when minor characters appear in your story, you should still consider how they make a first impression. This doesn’t mean writing a backstory or physical description in great detail, or even giving them a name (although names help readers establish an image of a character). It’s more to do with how you place them. Example: in ‘Deviant Desire’, when we meet Molly, the woman who runs the rope house where Silas and Andrej stay, she’s sitting at a desk, smells of piss and gin, and although she’s drunk, she guards her little empire like a hound. A short meeting such as that can tell the reader enough for the character to feel real, even though Molly’s not on stage for much of the time.
Saying Goodbye in an Outro.
The word outro usually applies to music, but I use it to describe that last time we see a character, major or minor. Even if the character is coming back in the next book of a series, the way he/she leaves the reader of the current story is important.
In my mystery thriller, ‘The Saddling’ (written as James Collins), I conclude the story with Tom, Barry and Dan, because they are the mainstays of the series. Tom’s the MC, Dan the ‘impact character’, and Barry the sidekick who, later, becomes so much more. They are last seen through the eyes of Dan’s mother…
Whiteback flocks moved lazily out of their path as the boys strolled over the tufted fields. They talked freely and made plans along the reeded deek, startling yellow finches into flight. They crossed the bridge where the mother trees watched over them, new leaves reflecting in the glass-flat water. A hernshaw raised its broad wings, both greeting and applauding as a murder of crows fled before them in panicked protest. They pushed each other, laughing, debated the future, and forgot the past. With arms around each other’s shoulders, they finally talked themselves into silence.
They walked on into the distance until they were nothing more than brushstrokes on nature’s vast canvas, and the sheep returned to graze.
Three outros in one, and, I hope, vanishing into a pastoral scene of tranquillity after a frenetic action climax.
In ‘The Judas Inheritance’, a horror/thriller I wrote that was made into a film, our last sight of the main character sees him falling into the pit of hell. In ‘Lonely House’, another horror/thriller of mine, the two MCs are last scene together in a stance that suggests something more is about to happen between them, and in my gay/straight body-swap comedy, ‘Remotely’, the two MCs leave the stage together, and one of them puts out the lights.
Those examples (all by James Collins) might sound like ‘how to finish your story’ rather than how to say goodbye to your characters, but often, they are the same thing. Often, but not always. At the end of ‘Deviant Desire’, we close on the good guys at Clearwater House but then follow the bad guy through the streets as he plots his revenge, and we know we haven’t seen the last of him.
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
The point of today’s writing thought was to think about how characters first appear and last appear, and it’s one of those tricks of the trade that comes to you with practice and experience. Having said that, I’m sure most intuitive writers are subconsciously aware of how they introduce their players, but a reminder is always useful. In the heavily structured world of screenplay writing, writers often have a sheet per character which lists the usual things such as name, profession, character traits and so on, but which also has a couple of boxes to be filled, titled ‘Most likely to say’, ‘Intro’ and ‘Outro.’ I used this technique in a couple of screenplays, and I have similar notes written in whatever notebook I am using for my current project.
Setting your characters in a place that helps define the character is useful. Having them speak in a certain way is too, but so is knowing the kind of thing they’re likely to say and, even better, having them open with such a line really defines them for the first-time reader or viewer. Again, I must quote from my own work, and in this case the Clearwater prequel, ‘Banyak & Fecks’ where we again meet Silas for the first time (it depends if you read this book before ‘Deviant Desire’).
A stick of rags waited, slouched against the end of the pew where penitents were expected to sit respectfully, his arms folded as he gaped at the vaulted ceiling. On hearing the swish of the curtain rings, the lad looked down, and on seeing the priest, shook his head to rid it of an uncontrollable yawn. Unsuccessful, he could only pull a twisted smile and wave a hand as an instruction for the priest to wait, before moaning out the last of the yawn and lodging a complaint against it by saying, ‘Fecking hell.’
That’s enough ramble from me. In other news…
I am working on draft two of the next Larkspur Mystery, ‘Keepers of the Past.’ I’ve not heard back from my cover designer yet, but I hope to have some rough drafts during this week. I need to write the blurb, contact Ann about a date for proofing and, of course, make the book as good as I can. On that note, I shall make my outro and bid you a healthy week to come.
James Collins author page at Amazon