by Gayle Towell
In Have a Nice Trip, by Howe Towalk a character named Bill is introduced as follows:
Bill trundled down the path, tripping over a rock and tumbling, rolling to a stop when his head hit a tree.
Now, which of the dudes below is Bill?
Did you say A? No? B? Maybe, C? If the narrator starts talking about Bill being all suave later, do you believe them or do you read it as sarcastic? If Bill deftly eludes a predator, do you see it as skill or luck? What if I told you Bill is an Abercrombie model? Would you buy it?
Check out this excerpt from Are You Nuts? by P. Caans, introducing the character Cindi:
“I hate pecans,” said Cindi. “You should know that by now.” She spun around and trotted off in a huff.
Which of these ladies is Cindi:
It’s A, you say? What has you so damn sure of yourself? If Cindi feeds porridge to orphans later, do you think she’s sincere in her want to help or just trying to look good? Would you be confused if she showed up in a hippie skirt and Birkenstocks in chapter five?
Note that in both of these openings, nothing is actually said of the characters’ physical appearance, and yet a picture is painted none-the-less. The words “trundled” and “trotted” have certain connotations. Olympic athletes don’t trundle. Free spirits don’t trot unless they are centaurs.
Readers carry their first impressions through the rest of the story and these impressions override everything that comes after. Information that doesn’t fit with it either doesn’t register or it comes across in a way you didn’t intend. You may even find yourself screaming at the reader when they miss all those obvious descriptions you so carefully placed.
“Why in the hell do you think Cindi is a bitch?” you yell, frothing at the mouth. “All of chapter two and three she was tending to her ailing grandmother!”
First off, never get mad at the reader. (Okay, sometimes get mad at the reader if they’re really being a dolt, but not in this case). Your writing is what planted the image. Go and look at your character’s introduction and ask yourself what the actions and descriptors evoke. A quick fix there goes a long way.
If Bill is coordinated and handsome, then perhaps he saunters down the path, tripping only when distracted by a text message as he comes upon a rock sticking up in the trail. And maybe Cindi’s offense at pecans is better explained by a murder plot:
“Andrew,” she said, “But… you know I’m allergic to pecans. Why would you…” Tears filled Cindi’s big, blue eyes, as she dashed out of the house.
In part, this boils down to consistency of character, only it goes a little deeper. Even if everything else is consistent, one wrong verb choice in the introduction can throw the whole thing off. That’s right: the whole thing.
But, you know, no pressure.