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Artful Ways of Introducing a Character

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

April 2010

"The way not to introduce a character is having him or her look into a mirror . . ."

The way not to introduce a character is having him or her look into a mirror and describe himself and then mull over his life with no one but the reader. That would especially be a waste of time because the reader would have more than likely imparted a jaw-locking yawn and put the story down, possibly in the garbage.

Some stories introduce the narrator straight-up as in Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael.”

Others have a more convoluted approach. I always ogle New Yorker stories for enticing ways to introduce a character.

Safari, by Jennifer Eigen, (1/11/10) begins:

“Remember, Charlie? In Hawaii? When we went to the beach at night and it started to rain?” Rolph is talking to his older sister, Charlene, who despises her real name. But because they’re crouched around a bonfire with other people on the safari, and because Rolph doesn’t speak up all that often, and because of their father, Lou, sitting behind them in a camp chair, is a record producer whose personal life is of general interest, those near enough to hear are listening closely. “Remember how Mom and Dad stayed at the table for one more drink?”

Jennifer Eigen cleverly uses dialogue to introduce Rolph. We can tell right off that Rolph is a child by his breathy voice and the way he speaks in short, insistent questions and repeats “remember?” So Rolph is not only introduced by what he says, but how he says it, his diction. The narrative tells us so much about Rolph’s family, where he is, his relationship to his sister, and the father, looming behind him in a camp chair. Eigen wows me with her economy of means. One paragraph nails so much of what we need to know about the character and rivets our attention. We want to know more about Rolph and the others.

"Ordinarily, the reader learns that character’s names right off. . ."

Ordinarily, the reader learns that character’s names right off, but in Ask Me If I Care, another Eagan story that appeared 3/8/10, The character is introduced by her voice, i.e., the way she speaks right away:

“Late at night, when there’s nowhere left to go, we go to Alice’s house. Scotty drives his pickup, two of us squeezed in the front with him, blasting bootleg tapes of The Stranglers, The Mutants, Negative Trend, the other two stuck in the back where you freeze all year long, getting tossed in the actual air when Scotty crests the hills. Still, if it’s Bennie and me and I hope for the back, so that I can push against his shoulder in the cold, and hold him for a second when we hit a bump.”

It’s obvious that the main character is a teenage girl from her the way she gets so much out in a breath, as if she’s talking top-speed, and the jargon: the names of the music groups. Also, she uses the name of every one of her friends, which is most important to a teen. And we know that she’s a “bad” girl because the tapes are bootlegged. But the main character’s actual name isn’t given until the fifth paragraph, and almost as an aside:

“Jocelyn goes, ‘Watch Rhea, they’ll be blond like her, the sisters.”

"The effect of withholding Rhea’s name makes the story a more believable first person."

The effect of withholding Rhea’s name makes the story a more believable first person. It reminds me that I don’t have to manipulate my own first person stories to get the character’s name in. But delaying giving the name while all Rhea’s friends are named mirrors how a teenage girl thinks; she’s absorbed in the protoplasm of her friends.

In Diary of an Interesting Year, (12/21/09) a quietly told apocalyptic tale taking place in the year 2040, the author, Helen Simpson, never lets us know what the character’s name is even though, in the diary entries, we find out private things about the mis-workings of the character’s body as a result of starvation and stress, the routines she carves out of the days after some kind of disaster had occurred, and her boyfriend, G., whose full name is never revealed either. The effect of knowing such intimate details of an unnamed character is that she becomes emblematic, a symbol for everyone else in this crisis and a dark harbinger of what our own futures might if we don’t take hold of our world.

In The Knocking, 3/15/10. David Means introduces a character with a riff on that sound:

“Upstairs, he stops for a moment, just to let the tension build, and then he begins again, softer at first, going east to west and going east again, heading toward the Fifth Avenue side of the building, pausing to get his bearings, to look out the window to taunt me, I imagine, before going back into motion for a few minutes, setting the pace with a pendulous movement, following the delineation of the apartment walls—his name the same as mine, exactly the same—and then another pause, and I lean back and study the ceiling and hear, far off, the sound of knocking in his kitchen until eventually, maybe five minutes, maybe more, he comes back again, persistent and steady…”

The sentence goes on for quite a long time, nearly a whole column, before there’s an end stop. Unlike the diction of the teenager in Eagan’s story, the long sentences that come out rushed, as if the girl hasn’t taken a breath, Means’ character is extremely detailed, focusing on each subtle change, obsessive, reminding me of Poe’s The Telltale Heart. In the narrator’s telling about the other person’s knocking, he is introducing two people: the person he is complaining about and himself. The narrator is so crazed that we’re not really sure whether he’s been driven to that state by an insane neighbor or whether he himself is insane and either exaggerating what he’s hearing, in which case, he’s an “unreliable witness,” or has he fabricated the neighbor the way George and Martha fabricated a son in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

". . .these stories challenge us to be speculative about how and when we introduce our characters . . ."

As if there isn’t enough to think about already while writing, these stories challenge us to be speculative about how and when we introduce our characters, which reminds us that writing a story is a series of decisions of the mind as well as an outpouring of the heart.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.