What’s the first thing your readers see your main character doing?
A lot of people focus on where the story needs to start, what needs to happen, what the reader needs to know. But very few people consider the first thing the readers see the hero do.
In Joss Whedon’s sci-fi/western TV series Firefly the first thing you see the main character- Captain Malcolm Reynolds- doing is fighting a war.
But he’s not fighting just any war. He’s fighting on the side of the Independence, the losing side. In fact, his side is losing the battle as the scene progresses and all the while Captain Reynolds is taking charge, throwing out orders and teasing a young soldier into not being afraid. You see him fighting with everything he’s got and you know from that first moment that he’s willing to lay down his life if need be for his cause.
The first thing you see another of the main characters- Wash- doing is playing with plastic dinosaurs. A grown man, he’s sitting at the pilot’s seat of the spaceship, happily playing with toys.
Now, that’s not to say Captain Reynolds doesn’t have any fun. There are some really awesome scenes where he says or does something that sets me off laughing. So, if the creators of the show had wanted to make him play with dinosaurs, he could have. Because I could see the captain doing that at some point.
But, if that had been the first thing we had seen him do, we, the viewers, would have gotten a much different impression of him. We would have seen him differently, formed a different opinion of him. We wouldn’t see him as the leader, the solider, the fighter of causes. We would have seen him as the fun, lighthearted guy who plays with dinosaurs.
Take a look back to some of your favorite stories and ask yourself what the opening scene tells you about the main character.
Why do you think Dickens chose to open Great Expectations the way he did? His starting place was crucial to the plot, yes. But is it not also an example that Pip is easily taken advantage of? Dickens could have started with Pip talking to Joe or with his sister beating on him and it would have given us an accurate description of who Pip was and what his life was like.
But, the way he began his book also told us something about Pip. Something that lasted the whole book. Even after he comes into his expectations, is Pip still not taken advantage of? By the way his money twists his mind, by his peers, by Estella, by his benefactor? Time after time we see someone, or something, take advantage of him.
And it all points back to that opening scene, when he was sitting in the graveyard and a certain convict decided to use him as a means to get a bit of food and escape his chains.
The first thing we see of Ally Carter’s hero- Kat Bishop- in Heist Society is her at a trial before the officials at the private school she’s attending. She’s been accused of something she didn’t do and they are planning to kick her out of school for it.
Ms. Carter could have started the book with Kat conning her way into the school. She could have started it after Kat got kicked out, having her get into the car and meet Hale right there at the beginning.
But she didn’t.
She started the book with Kat’s trial because it shows us so much about Kat’s character. While the officials are explaining to her what she’s accused of, her mind is reeling at the suggestion and she begins figuring out better ways to do commit the crime, thinking “If I had done it, I would have done it by [insert plan]” and she’s quite confident that she wouldn't have been caught at it. Which tells us Kat’s a planner. And, it’s believable when she becomes the mastermind of her own team later in the book.
But then, at the same time, she never tells the people she’s smarter than that, that she would have done it a different way. She keeps those thoughts to herself. Which tells us she’s also smart. It tells us she knows not what to say but, more importantly, what not to. And, it also points to a problem that arises later when she says not too much, but too little. It shows us she keeps things to herself, internalizes, plotting, planning, and overthinking inside of herself, but not sharing with the world more than she thinks they need.
The first thing you see a character doing is the most important thing. And yet, the best authors tell their reader everything they need to know without the reader realizing it.
The opening to The Fault in Our Stars (which, is a book I have not read all of, just the first little bit) begins with the main character- Hazel Grace- telling us that she’s depressed. It begins with a monologue of her explaining her illness, her depression, and what she’s being forced to do about it.
On the surface, it seems like a lot of telling. She’s depressed. She has cancer. She has to go to a support group. But, if you dig deeper, you see another layer- she’s a cynic. She’s straightforward. She may have cancer but, to an extent, she’s accepted it because we all, after all, are dying.
John Green could have opened his book anyway way he wanted to. But he chose to start with Hazel telling us something. She was talking to us, explaining her situation. But she says so much more, between the lines, with the things she says, the way she says them, how she chooses to express herself. That opening, which could be looked at as very telling, is actually showing us something. Something important.
So, writers, I ask you this- what does your opening scene say about your hero? I urge you to truly examine it. And, if doesn’t say show the readers who exactly your hero is, then I challenge you to scrap the scene and write a new one. A better one.
Because you, and your book, deserve for it to be the very best it can be.
How about you? What does your opening scene say about your hero? What does the opening scene of your favorite book say about its hero?