A character’s entrance is essentially the first time that the reader sees that character. This can be a powerful tool in characterization because the reader’s initial impression of a character colors the way that they understand and react to that character’s actions later on. When done right, a character’s entrance can establish their personality with a minimum of exposition. First impressions are powerful, and failing to use the character’s entrance is a missed opportunity.

Entrances also provide the reader with hints about how much attention they need to pay to each character. They also clue readers in to whether or not a character is going to return. This means that they’re important for both major characters and for minor recurring characters who you want the audience to remember.

Some examples: The first time that we encounter Jane…

  • She runs up and hugs Lucy, our protagonist, and announces that she has baked cupcakes for the charity fundraiser at the local mosque. She comes off as friendly and innocuous and the reader is inclined to believe that she is one of the good guys.

    I’m not going to say she’s evil, but she’s probably evil.
  • She kicks Lucy’s dog and unleashes a nasty string of expletives. This sets an expectation that she is mean-spirited, and that any kindness from her is suspect. Readers can reasonably expect that she’s not on Lucy’s side.
  • She chatters about her Valentine’s Day plans while setting out mouse traps around the kitchen. It appears that she is on Lucy’s side and she seems friendly, but her casual cruelty towards rodents makes her slightly unsettling. It’s not enough to say that she’s evil, but if she turns on Lucy it won’t come out of the blue.

…Though, of course, first impressions can be intentionally misleading. They can be used to throw the reader off the real culprit and to inspire undue paranoia just as easily as they can foreshadow and give subtle hints about which characters readers should be keeping an eye on. Understanding the sort of impression that each character’s entrance leaves is a useful tool when shaping the way that readers perceive your characters.

It’s also an excellent way of establishing your characters in scene and showing who they are rather than telling. A good entrance shows the character doing something distinctive,  which helps cut down on the desire to provide unneeded description and interior monologue.

Ways that entrances go wrong:

If I introduce one character per chapter, my book will be…a standard epic fantasy novel.

Too many characters attempt to enter at once. This dilutes the amount of attention that readers can give to any one character, and means that there’s a good chance that their entrances will go unnoticed. It also makes it difficult for readers to keep track of characters, since they are being asked to remember a large amount of information. This is especially true of minor characters, who tend to command less attention to begin with. Spacing your character introductions out will help you get the most out of their entrances. Ask yourself which characters are necessary in the scene and which ones can wait until later. If the whole group must appear, give distinctive entrances and more detailed descriptions to the most important characters so that readers can easily identify them.

The entrance is incongruous with the character. This is not the same as an intentionally misleading entrance. This is when the entrance gives an unintended, inaccurate impression of a character that can cause readers to become frustrated or confused. Say that Jane is supposed to be disheveled and unorganized, but she is first shown tidying up after an honor society meeting. This entrance sets up an expectation that she is well put together, so when it turns out that isn’t the case it will leave readers wondering if they missed some serious character development. Likewise, if the first time that she appears she’s jumpy and afraid, people will be confused when she suddenly begins kicking ass in the next scene.

The character does not—and should not—reach the conclusion of the story unchanged. Their entrance need not reflect who they are at the end of the story. However, it should reflect how you want the audience to perceive the character at the moment that they are introduced.

It’s not a bland entrance. It’s just that my character’s about as interesting as plain oatmeal.

The entrance is bland. The character first appears doing something mundane like having lunch, discussing the weather, or brushing their teeth, and doing it in a way that isn’t particularly interesting. Unmemorable entrances are, as stated, a wasted opportunity. If the character’s entrance doesn’t say anything about them, see what happens when you tailor it to the desired first impression.

Writing like a boss: Unless you’re writing the sort of fantasy novel with a lot of front-matter, odds are that the opening lines of your story also act as your main character’s introduction. First lines are tough because they have to be compelling. Thinking of them as a character entrance–and using them to present an interesting character–is one way to do this, especially because people tend to latch onto characters more quickly than scenery.