One of the most difficult tasks for any novelist, including myself, is to create characters who seem like real people: more noble, often, or more evil than the rest of us—depending on their role in the story—but neither wholly one nor completely the other and, most of all, distinct. Characters like that grow beyond an individual book and achieve a kind of immortality. Long after we have forgotten the plot details of Little Women or Anna Karenina or Vanity Fair, we remember Jo March and her saintly sister Beth, the doomed Anna and her faithless Vronsky, and Becky Sharp.
It’s true that after a while characters acquire a certain kind of life; they say and do things an author doesn’t expect. Such behavior offers insights into their being and makes a writer’s life easier. It’s also true that some characters arrive fully formed, with their own voices and traits, whereas others hide and require extensive coaxing to reveal their hidden selves, their goals.
But it’s equally true that showing those developed characters from the very beginning of a novel is a task for the author, and no rewrite should be the last rewrite until that step has taken place. So how does that happen?
I’ll give you a favorite example of mine, one I go back to when wrestling with my own beginnings. It comes from Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness, and the person speaking is the heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch. Her very name hints at her character: although “Lady” has many shades of meaning in British society, it always refers to a noblewoman, and Rannoch is obviously Scots. The Lady First Name, especially for a woman, means a duke’s or perhaps an earl’s daughter; anyone lower is Lady Husband’s Title or Last Name. But in the first line, we find out what it means specifically to Georgiana, known to friends and family as Georgie.
There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.
First, one is expected to behave as befits a member of the royal family without being given the means to do so. [A list of royal tasks follows, one that will be familiar to anyone who has been following the latest flap among the Windsors over the departure of Prince Harry and Princess Meghan, followed by examples of the things royals cannot do, including applying for a job at Harrods, something that Georgie plans to attempt this very day.]
This opening excerpt reveals a surprising amount about what makes Georgie unique. We learn that she is royal, well educated, and quite proper (her use of “one,” for example) but aware of the contradictions in her world, willing to defy convention, and capable of questioning the strictures imposed on her in childhood. She also has a sharp tongue and a sense of humor, made even clearer on the next page, where she describes her grandmother as “the least attractive of Queen Victoria’s daughters,” an apparent burden that allowed Grandma to escape marriage to “a Romanov or a Kaiser, for which I am truly grateful and I expect she was too.”
We’re not two minutes into the story, but we already have Georgie’s quadruple-barreled name, insights into her heritage and approach to life, and most of all a clear sense of who she is. In a sense, as readers we’re already in love, ready to follow her wherever she wants to take us.
Here’s another example, one I encountered just recently while reading Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning, the first of a series set in late Victorian England starring Veronica Speedwell, the first-person narrator. Again, the first line is presented as action but actually reveals character: “I stared down at the open grave and wished that I could summon a tear.”
You may think that Veronica is just cold, but that’s not the case. She notices butterflies because she has adopted lepidoptery as a profession—in an age where women did not, as a rule, have professions—and to her they symbolize freedom and beauty. Her failure to weep at her guardian’s grave reflects both the relationship between them, “tepid at best,” and a mystery about Veronica’s past that drives the novel and becomes clear only toward the end. Veronica is certainly unconventional, as her having a profession indicates, but she is also passionate about her convictions, enough to get her into a spat with the vicar’s wife within half an hour of the funeral. By the end of chapter 1, we know she has no interest in marriage, that she has had lovers (extraordinary for a young, single Victorian woman), that she treasures foreign adventure and intends to run her own life, and that she doesn’t give a hoot about either gossip or social censure.
Bowen and Raybourn, of course, are big-time authors with large followings—undoubtedly because of writing like this. But even self-published and small-press writers need to aim for the same standard. It’s not easy, but it can be done. At the risk of giving myself more credit than I deserve, here are two openings from my own novels, The Golden Lynx (2012) and Song of the Sisters (2021). The first is told in alternating third-person and the second from the perspective of a first-person narrator, but each book begins with its heroine.
Here is Nasan, the central character of The Golden Lynx and its entire series:
The lynx found Nasan just before the ambush. She glimpsed its tufted ears through the tangled branches of the birch tree, then lost sight of it when her brother launched his attack. Alerted by his joyous shriek, she jumped sideways and stuck out a foot, sending him somersaulting over the blizzard-kissed ground. She pelted him with snowballs, taunting him. “You forgot again, silly. How can you take me by surprise if you yell like that?”
And here is Darya, at first observing her older sister:
“Oh, Darya, you have to see this. A strutting peacock just entered our yard!” Solomonida stood on tiptoe, leaning forward until I worried she might tumble right through the open window in her eagerness. The late morning sunlight glinted off her jeweled headdress and found an answering glow in the wisps of blonde braid that had worked their way out from under the rim as she sewed.
“Peacock?” I stared at her and sighed. It wasn’t fair. My older sister was lovely, even at thirty-one. Not just beautiful, either, but vivid and charming—outgoing, outspoken, eager to interact with life beyond our courtyard gates. Next to her I felt like the quiet mouse she teasingly called me. “How would a peacock get into our yard?”
So what can we tell about these two women interacting with their siblings? Nasan is probably a teenager at most, since she still enjoys a snowball fight with her brother. She is active and competitive, and she takes no prisoners, pummeling her brother even when he’s down (we soon see him doing the same to her). Why the lynx is looking for her, we won’t find out for a while, but she notices it lurking, so she is at home in the forest and alert to its perils. Even so, we discover within a page or so that she is in fact courting danger, that she and her brother have defied their parents’ orders to stay within the fortress because of a threat that will sweep them into the story before they know it. So she is courageous and willing to buck authority—or simply young enough to believe in her own invincibility.
Darya, in contrast, views herself—and is viewed by others, so her perceptions are accurate—as a quiet mouse, inferior to her older sister (less pretty and charming), and shy about life outside her estate. She is perceptive and honest as well as observant, and she is not proud. If anything, she underestimates her own worth and defers too readily to others, including her sister. She has a developed aesthetic/artistic sense, describing Solomonida as a painter might. The jeweled headdress indicates that the family is noble, or at least wealthy—unlike Nasan, who at first glance could be anyone, although it soon becomes obvious that she’s at the very top of the social hierarchy, something that concerns her not at all. And the sisters have been sewing, a traditionally female occupation that brands them as fundamentally conventional even though as time goes by they will push at the boundaries of their world. It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to learn that Nasan would rather do almost anything than ply a needle. Give her a sword and a horse any day.
See how much you can tell from a few sentences? It’s no accident that I use my characters over and over, once I’ve developed them. Finding them takes so much time, and getting them on the page requires an even greater investment. Keeping up with them as they grow is a challenge, too—maybe we'll talk about that another day—but nothing like as hard as getting to know them in the first place.
Even with all that, not everyone will create another Jo March or Becky Sharp. But it’s certainly worth a try.