Are you wondering what those three pictures up there have to do with anything?
They represent visuals from two movies that gave me a lightbulb moment about characterization: How the most indelible details are the little things I notice about a character within the first few minutes they're on screen.
One movie was called Dark City. I saw it for the first time about a year ago. It's a psychological sci-fi horror from the director of The Crow, and a guilty pleasure for me for that reason alone. But I never expected it would actually teach me something about writing.
Here's the trailer. It's one of the best I've ever seen. Some of the visuals play a huge role in what this post is all about, so pay close attention:
When we first meet the hero, he's waking up in a bathtub full of tepid water. He's bleeding, and can't remember anything about his past. While getting out, he slips and shatters a fishbowl. As the goldfish lays on the floor gasping, the hero picks it up gently and releases it in the bathtub. He then turns around to find a woman's mutilated corpse beside his bed. So now he's on the run, thinking he's a cold-blooded murderer.
But wait ... how could someone who so tenderly saved the life of a fish, be heartless and violent? That one glimpse into his character already has us wondering.
Next, we meet the detective. One of the first things to come out of his mouth upon arriving at the crime scene is, "Your shoe's untied," to one of his officers. We immediately know he's fastidious and a man of details. He doesn't miss anything. So when he sees the bloody scene in the bedroom, then goes to the bathroom and finds the broken fish bowl and its previous occupant swimming merrily in the bathtub, he wonders the same thing we are. "Why would a murderer have the compassion to save a fish?"
That's amazing. The writers have given us bone deep insight into two characters with little more than a couple of afterthoughts and gestures. Because of the carefully laid out characterization within the first twenty minutes of the movie, we're already starting to cheer for the possible murderer, and hoping the diligent detective of details will be able to figure out the truth and prove him innocent.
The other example is Ghost Town.
This one's a comedy about a dentist, who after being dead for a few minutes during a colonoscopy, is suddenly able to see and hear every ghost in town. Thing is, this guy HATES people and tries to avoid them at all costs. And how do we know this? Well, within the first few minutes of the movie, we find him stuffing a wad of guaze in his patient's mouth, not because he's about to do a procedure that requires it, but because he can't stand to hear her yak anymore. Heh.
Screenwriters are aces at honing in on what appears at first to be minutiae, then later comes into play in a big way. The story has to take front seat so the characterization needs to have super-powered details from the get-go. It's like giving us a jolt with an emotional spark plug so we're connected -- immediately and viscerally.
As novelists and story writers, we can take a lesson from this. Think of the first page of your book as a speed date. Those first few paragraphs are those crucial moments of dialogue between your character and your character's prospective date, the reader. You don't have long, so make the best of it ... make those details count.
In Splintered, my first two paragraphs spotlight something integral about the heroine in her own voice:
I’ve been collecting bugs since I was ten; it’s the only way I can stop their whispers. Sticking a pin through the gut of an insect shuts it up pretty quick.
Some of my victims line the walls in shadow boxes, while others get sorted into mason jars and placed on a bookshelf for later use. Crickets, beetles, spiders … bees and butterflies. I’m not picky. Once they get chatty, they’re fair game.
First, we know this girl has something mental going on. I mean, talking bugs? Eek! Second, we know that she's found a way to deal with it that works for her. So right off the bat, we can see she's got some issues, but she's proactive, and not going down without a fight. Hopefully, a reader would want to know more about a character like that.
Now look at the first few sentences / paragraphs in your latest project. Did you jump start your characterization with one small detail that packs a punch and gives your reader keen insight into your character's depths and individuality ... something that will make people want to read on?
The beginning of your story sets the groundwork for the relationship between your characters and your readers. If you want people to take your book off the shelf and out on a "second date," make sure to leave a big impression. Give them something worth pining for.