How to Introduce Characters to Each Other

27 Aug
Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult. For instance, how do you introduce two characters for the first time? A lot rides on the encounter. It’s not so different than dreaming about that guy or girl in middle school and worrying about how you’d ask him or her to the dance. The problem vexed F. Scott Fitzgerald—how to introduce Gatsby to Nick— so much that he slipped the great man in the back door. We meet him without knowing it.

If you want an easier way to introduce two characters, check out Mary Helen Specht’s great novel-in-progress Migratory Animals. The prologue was published at Necessary Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Specht introduces the novel’s main characters: Flannery, a white American woman in her 20s visiting Nigeria, and Kunle, a Nigerian man in graduate school:

“She met Kunle at an outdoor canteen at the Nigerian university where she had been posted on what was supposed to be a brief data-collecting trip. Sitting at an adjacent table with a soda and a worn textbook, he leaned over and said, “You should try the palm wine.” Kunle wore slacks and a blue button-down Oxford, both ironed within an inch of their lives. Trim and preppy, he looked like one of those idealized husbands in films, usually too straight-laced to be Flannery’s type, the kind of man who kissed a beautiful wife before leaving for the office.”

Notice what Specht does not do: she doesn’t let the characters say, “Hi.” They don’t shake hands or make chit-chat. They don’t eye each other from across the room. The introduction just happens. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. When and where she met the man
  2. The initial encounter boiled down to a single spoken phrase and action
  3. What the man was wearing
  4. What his appearance reminder her of

If you used this template for every introduction in every story and novel, you’d be set for life. It’s an easy, efficient way to get two characters together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce two characters using Mary Helen Specht’s novel as a model:

  1. Pick a setting: Why is the character/narrator there? In what specific place did the characters meet? Be explicit when starting the passage: He/She/I met So-and-so in this place.
  2. Pick a moment: Boil the initial encounter down to a single spoken phrase and action. When the main character/narrator leaves the encounter, what words of the other person will he/she remember and dream about?
  3. PIck the clothes: What is the person wearing? Be specific.
  4. Describe the clothes/style/appearance more generally: From one character’s perspective, describe the other character. What does he/she reminder her/him of? What feeling does he/she get when meeting the person?

That’s it. The encounter is over, and you can transition next to the next encounter. Mechanically speaking, all you need to do is get the characters onto the page together. The scene doesn’t need to be long, like the initial encounter in Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. Be brief and efficient and move on.

Good luck and have fun.

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3 Responses to “How to Introduce Characters to Each Other”

  1. wee1one September 4, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

    Even with this exercise, I wrote too far in to the conversation. It was really interesting to take out all but the first line and see that it worked better! I’m also really interested in this website Necessary Fiction and can’t wait to read more.

    • michaelnoll1 September 4, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

      I know, it’s hard to know when to stop. Often this quick-meet intros are accomplished through revision. And, yes, Necessary Fiction is a great site. Glad you liked it!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Mary Helen Specht | Read to Write Stories - August 29, 2013

    […] (To read an excerpt from Specht’s novel-in-progress Migratory Animals and an exercise based on how she adeptly introduces two characters, click here.) […]

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