FIRST CHAPTERS CAN BE EXCITING, launching the reader into an unexpected and possibly dangerous situation, or they can be quiet, building interest with beautiful prose. They should have a setting that either compliments or is at odds with the main character, but in either case that setting should be clear and specific. And they should begin to spell out the writer’s promise to the reader: I’m going to tell you this kind of story, and I will do it in the best way I know how.
But most of all, the first chapter in a novel introduces the reader to remarkable characters. They have to be remarkable — or perhaps particular is a better word — if we want readers to follow their story for two or three or four hundred pages.
For this reason, before I sit down to start a new novel I like to do some exercises around character development. I find it helpful to look at a couple of first chapters of novels I admire — not as models, really, but as launching pads. Thinking about how another writer begins fleshing out her characters is interesting and instructive (to me, at least), and I ask myself some questions while I read:
- What does the main character want in this chapter? It can be small, like a cigarette, or large, like love. What do the other characters want?
- What are their obstacles?
- What particular traits or details are used to describe the character(s)? Is any of the character’s backstory or history related in the opening? How much?
- What kind of story is being launched? (Mystery, Coming-of-Age, Historical Fiction, etc.) Does the opening chapter invite questions about the story (what will happen next), or the character (who is this person and how will he/she change), or both?
- What is your sense of how these characters might act and what they might think? What details point to these conclusions?
- What makes us care about the characters and their predicaments as related so far?
- Why do you think the book begin here?
After I look at two or three “first chapters,” I start thinking and writing about my own characters, starting with the protagonist. What does she want at the beginning of the story, and what does she want (or get) at the end? What is her main obstacle (this might be another character)? These are basic questions that probably every writer thinks of to some extent. I also like to make lists: her traits, her habits, anything unusual I can think of. These may change (and do change) over the course of writing, and that’s fine. One reason for these exercises is just to get myself thinking more concretely (i.e., “she is always cold and wears socks to bed”) and less abstractly (“she’s like my neighbor”).
Here are some initial exercises I’ve used to start developing a more complicated character:
- Write down as many specific traits about your character as you can: gender, age, race, social class, sexuality, level of education, place of birth, number of siblings, current home, any special abilities.
- Write ten unusual facts about your character (she never uses a pillow when she sleeps; he whistles through his front teeth when he’s nervous). After that write then ten lies.
- Write ten different ideas about what your character wants. Now write ten different ideas about what he or she needs.
- Write a paragraph using this prompt: “[Character X] told herself what she wanted was … but what she really wanted was …”
I start with my protagonist, but eventually I do some version of these exercises with many if not all of my characters. If these exercises are helpful to you, let me know. Also I’m always curious about other exercises, so feel free to share yours.