It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.
Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.
Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.
Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.
So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.
Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.
Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:
Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.
Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.
Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.
Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor: exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.
Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.
For example: let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.
Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?
The answer is that it depends on two factors: Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.
If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.
However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.
The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.