It's a cliche, I know, but you really do get only one chance at making a first impression -- in life and in fiction. From the moment a new character enters a book, the reader consciously and subconsciously picks up on clues about his nature and quickly forms an opinion. If details are not thoughtfully chosen, a character's first scene can be a missed opportunity or, more negatively, disruptively misleading.
Describing a character’s physical appearance is certainly one tool you -- the writer -- have at your disposal, but actions and dialogue are the keys to creating more complex, nuanced first impressions. Sarah Dessen’s enormously popular young adult novels contain excellent examples of how a great deal of information can be subtly conveyed through deceptively simple, short scenes.
Although the plots obviously vary, there are consistent themes in Dessen’s novels. One of the hallmarks of a Dessen book is that the narrator, a teenage girl, begins a relationship with a new boy during the course of the story. (If the protagonist has a boyfriend at the opening of the novel, you can rest assured that he’ll be gone in a few chapters to make way for the new guy.)
Because the protagonists are meeting these boys for the first time, Dessen always has a scene in her books with that initial, pivotal encounter between narrator and eventual love interest. Looking closely at these scenes, it is remarkable how many signals Dessen subtly incorporates to foreshadow what the boy is really like and where the relationship is headed. To highlight the fact that appearance is only part of this, the quotes included here omit all references to what the characters look like.
In Dreamland, Caitlin, the narrator, first meets Rogerson Briscoe at a gas station after she has come from a disastrous cheerleading experience:
He was standing next to the black BMW... As I passed he looked up and watched me, staring. “Hey,” he called out just as I passed out of sight… I took a few steps back and suddenly he was right there; he’d moved to catch up with me (50).
The most telling detail in this passage is the use of the phrase “suddenly he was right there.” Although it is not overt or heavy handed, there is a threatening undercurrent to Rogerson’s sudden appearance. It’s creepy.
The scene continues: “He smiled, then looked me up and down. Suddenly I knew I looked idiotic in my cheerleading uniform…‘Nice outfit,’ he said” (50). With one small gesture and comment, Rogerson brings out Caitlin’s insecurity. Dessen swiftly establishes his judgmental attitude towards Caitlin’s life, and her self-doubting response to his disapproval.
The climax of the scene – the moment when Rogerson has the most profound effect on Caitlin – directly follows his subtly demeaning comment about her uniform.
He glanced at the bandage on my upper arm, then asked, “What happened to you there?”…
“I fell off a [cheerleading] pyramid earlier tonight.”
“Ouch,” he said, and before I could even move he reached out and touched my bandage, running a finger across it…“You okay?”
“I… I don’t know,” I said. This was strangely true at that moment (50-51).
Rogerson’s gesture of reaching out to touch Caitlin “before she could even move,” though small, is presumptuous and aggressive. And although the reader knows Caitlin means she doesn’t know if she’s “okay” because she’s feeling so intrigued by Rogerson, her response shows that his action disturbed and unsettled her. Moments later, Rogerson makes his exit:
“I should go,” I said…
“Sure,” he said, nodding. “See ya around, Caitlin.” And he raised his chin, backing up, keeping his eyes on me (51).
Just that fleeting image of Rogerson says so much. The raised chin conveys cockiness; the way he keeps looking at Caitlin is subtly menacing. He will be watching her.
Caitlin and Rogerson’s romance begins soon after this first meeting. Following an initial happy phase, Rogerson becomes physically and mentally abusive. In that brief scene where Rogerson is introduced, Dessen foreshadows many elements of his character and of their relationship: Rogerson’s tendency to prey on Caitlin’s insecurities; his judgmental nature; the aggressive, presumptuous way he treats Caitlin’s body; his constant watchfulness; Caitlin’s attraction to his aggressiveness; and the strong emotions he evokes in her. Most importantly, Dessen conveys all of this without showing Rogerson kicking a dog, or anything so blatant. Dessen is able to straddle the line of having Rogerson be attractive to Caitlin while setting the scene for his cruel behavior later in the novel.
Dexter, the main love interest in This Lullaby, makes quite a different entrance. Remy, the narrator, is already known to the reader as being highly cynical about anything relating to love and relationships. And it’s through her eyes that the reader meets Dexter. Remy is sitting in a car dealership, already in a bad mood.
Just then, someone plopped down hard into the chair on my left, knocking me sideways into the wall… And suddenly, just like that, I was pissed…
“What the hell,” I said, pushing off the wall… I turned my head and saw …it was a guy…around my age… And for some reason he was smiling.
“Hey there,” he said cheerfully. “How’s it going?” (10-11)
Dexter’s cheerful demeanor immediately counteracts the fact that he bumped into Remy. The reader, knowing how cranky Remy is, doesn’t pick up on his physical contact as a threatening or violent action. Rather, it is clear that Remy is overreacting. Dexter seems happily oblivious, a stark contrast to Remy’s negativity.
Remy continues to give him a hard time. “’You just slammed me into the wall, asshole.’ He blinked. ‘Goodness,’ he said finally. ‘Such language’” (11). Dexter’s unperturbed response to Remy’s nastiness proves both that he has a sense of humor, and that he is not easily put off by Remy’s tough girl demeanor. Despite her abuse, he continues on in an enthusiastic manner.
“The thing is,” he said…”I saw you out in the showroom. I was over by the tire display?”…“I just thought to myself, all of a sudden, that we had something in common. A natural chemistry, if you will... That we were, in fact, meant to be together…”; “[Knocking into you] was an accident. An oversight. Just an unfortunate result of the enthusiasm I felt knowing I was about to talk to you” (11).
With this confession, Dexter comes across as an over-excited puppy. His enthusiasm seems genuine and his lack of pretension or cool façade is immediately appealing.
When Dexter touches Remy – uninvited – it makes quite a different impression than when Rogerson touches Caitlin:
“Just take this,” the guy said, grabbing my hand. He turned it palm up before I could even react…then proceeded…to write a name and phone number in the space between my thumb and forefinger…Talk about not respecting a person’s boundaries. I’d dumped drinks on guys for even brushing against me at a club, much less yanking my hand and actually writing on it (12-13).
The reader knows to take Remy’s reaction with a grain of salt – after all, she’s just said she dumps drinks on guys who brush against her. So instead of being threatening, Dexter’s action of grabbing her hand is simply endearing. Remy is not in danger; she can take care of herself.
Having established Remy’s cynical take on love, Dessen uses this introduction to show Dexter as the anti-Remy: a happy, bumbling, easily love-struck guy. In addition, the whole interaction mirrors Dexter and Remy’s relationship throughout the book. Dexter crashes into Remy’s emotional life, creating unwanted cracks in her self-protective armor. And despite her desperate attempts to push him away, in the end, she can’t help but be won over.
It might be argued that as long as the character acts “like himself” in his first scene, he will create a distinct and correct impression. But this is simplifying the matter. People are complex, as is a good character. In different scenes they will act many different ways. The scenes in Dreamland and This Lullaby show not just any one side of the character, but the side of the character that is most important to the narrative: the way he will relate to and treat the narrator, the character the reader is identifying with. This makes the introductory scenes highly effective.
The characters are not the only ones invested in the course of these romantic relationships; the readers are invested, as well. So Dessen is very smart to give such consideration to her characters’ introductions. She wants the reader to be wary of Rogerson, and to root for Dexter to cut through Remy’s tough girl façade. It’s not enough for her to describe the guys as good-looking. Of course they’re good-looking – these are fairly traditional teen romance novels. Dessen uses the actions of the characters to predispose the reader to feel excited and satisfied with the direction the relationship takes.
So, when you're in the revision process, go through and look at the scenes where you introduce new characters. Are there ways in which you can deepen/strengthen/complexify (not a word, I know, but it should be) the impression he makes? Are you giving the reader misleading clues? Remember -- no detail is too small to play a part in the overall opinion the reader takes away from her first meeting with your character. Use this to your advantage!