A Duck Walks into a Pharmacy (Establishing Character in the first line)
The following is an excerpt from my critical paper I submitted to Antioch University of Los Angeles as part of the requirements for attaining my MFA in Fiction Writing. It focuses on the second of seven different techniques for creating compelling first lines.
While sixty-three of the 100 lines had an element of conflict, character was not far behind. 48 of the 100 lines, in some way or another, developed a unique character or character trait. Sometimes it is done simply, almost like an introduction. Ralph Ellison begins The Invisible Man with a simple introduction (which also establishes part of the central conflict). “I am an invisible man” (100BestLines.asp 10). Like conflict, though, character can be developed with longer lines. Consider John Hawkes’ Second Skin:
“I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self” (100BestLines.asp 91).
The case for character is clear. At the end of a novel or short story, many readers are hard pressed to remember the first line, even if they loved the rest. Often, what they remember are the characters. But what makes a strong character, and how do we show it in the first line? For me to pretend to have the answers would be absurd, considering the volumes that have been written on the subject. Suffice it to say that people don’t remember characters unless there’s something memorable to them—a particular way of speaking, or a way of looking at the world. Perhaps they have some amazing talent or skill. Mostly, we like flaws and quirks. In fact, this is how we often remember our friends. Have you heard this conversation?
“Bumped into a friend of yours, but I didn’t get his name. Real nice fellow.”
“Ah. You must be talking about Matt. Tall fellow. Curly black hair, always smiling.”
“The name Matt’s not ringing a bell, but I think he was tall.”
“Walks with a bit of a limp?”
“Not that I noticed.”
“Hands always in his pockets?”
“Not Matt then. Must be Fred. Fred’s a good guy. Pulls at his shirt a lot?”
“Now that you mention it, I think you’re right.”
“Yeah, starts every sentence with ‘Check it out,’ or ‘Look, look.’?”
“That’s the one.”
There’s a lot to notice in this conversation, but most importantly is the idea that “nice guy” is much too vague of a description to adequately identify someone. The specifics of Matt and Fred are what serve to identify them. Not just physical descriptions, but mannerisms and characteristics.
How do we show these traits in the first line in such a way that we inspire the reader to want to keep reading? By frontloading the mannerism or voice in the first sentence, the reader will be engaged. They will be intrigued by the characters way of viewing the world, or simply by their coping mechanisms.
An advantage to beginning with a quirk is the ability to get to know your character even better. There are myriad ways of developing your characters, as evidenced by the countless craft books that line the aisles of your local Barnes and Noble. Still, if you begin your book with a quirk, one that even surprises you, you get to know the character on a deeper level.
Imagine a character who, for no good reason, hates chalk. I will caution you at this point to make sure that, if your character is in fact, afraid of chalk, that it should play some part in the novel. Perhaps the villain draws a chalk line around himself and the hero must confront his fear or aversion in order to overcome. A further note of caution: don’t ever use that scenario. It strains credulity to painful points. I say all that to make this point—don’t cheat the reader by simply plugging in a neurosis. Such a move would be a gimmick, a literary no-no that I’ll explicate further later on in the paper.
Continuing on with the man who hates chalk—consider beginning with this, but not just the quirk—what it does to him, how it affects him. “He knew he’d done something horribly wrong when he got to his front door and saw that his wife had scrawled his name in chalk on the sidewalk—great, now how would he get inside?” Here we have quirk and conflict.
But it doesn’t have to be a quirk. Voice is often just as compelling. Consider J.D. Salinger’s famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” (100BestLines.asp 16). In this example we get a sense of the character’s history, but not a great one. More engaging than the history is the voice. The flippant use of words like “lousy” “crap, “and all that,” shows the reader that the protagonist is jaded and probably doesn’t care about much. Still, he’s got a story to tell and, for whatever reason, we’re sucked in—even though we know our narrator will not be that kind in his telling of his story.
Another fine example comes from Jeffrey Eugenides. In his novel Middlesex, he writes, “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974” (100BestLines.asp 50). Being born twice might have been enough of a sell, but to mention the different gender adds to the unexpected. More so, we hear the voice of the narrator, as we discussed earlier. Notice the “remarkably smogless” day, an attention to detail that others might miss, we know that the speaker is concerned with specifics.
In short, opening sentences that focus on character are more memorable if they’re unpredictable. If at all possible, we should allow the first line to surprise us. The surprising line may not make the final cut in our story, but it can spawn a new character, even a complete story. If our characters can surprise us as writers, they’ll surprise the reader, and the reader will be thankful.