The Bare Minimum of Character

My experiment for the day: what are the bare minimum of data points you need to know before you can start writing (or reading) most characters?  What does it take to hook the reader?

I have slushed (and rejected) an uncounted number of short stories that start out with the character waking up with amnesia.  Yes, Zelazny did it in Nine Princes in Amber, but that was Zelazny–and you knew what the character was like from the first sentence, even if the character didn’t:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded.   I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

We don’t know the character’s name, we don’t know whether they’re male or female, we don’t know what their background is, what they do, their hair color, basic description, etc.  We find out all that later, of course.  But we know the character, and, as events get stranger and stranger, we believe them, because we know that the character is just that determined, just that patient, and just that impatient.  Because of this opening.  We know they’ve been paralyzed, and can now move, and are proud and possessive and maybe just a little bit driven.  Just a little.  When things escalate and the character is right back in this situation, only worse, we almost feel bad for the person who did it to them, because it’s not going to be a happy day when that first sign of recovery happens.

I have no idea how much Zelazny knew about Corwyn or Amber or any of it before he started writing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he just sat down and said, “So there’s this guy who can’t remember a damned thing, but that’s not going to stop him…” and it all fell into place from there.

For most of us writers I think we need a little bit more.

But how little can most of us get away with?  Zelazny could get away with nothing more than attitude.  You probably have other books you love that start out with amnesiacs.  Take a look at them–what, in the opening paragraphs, does the reader start out with?

Another favorite opening of mine:

I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world.

My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea.  My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.  My father died when I was eight.  A year later my mother followed him to the Yellow Springs Beneath the Earth, and since then I have lived with Uncle Nung and Auntie Hua in the village of Ku-fu in the valley of Cho.  We take great pride in our landmarks.  Until recently we also took great pride in two gentlemen who were such perfect specimens that people used to come from miles around just to stare at them, so perhaps I should begin with a description of my village with a couple of classics. —Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart

We know Ox’s name(s), gender, and physical appearance; we know where he’s from; and we know his background.  We know what he does for a living (peasant).  We know his attitude (modest, long-winded, reverent, slyly humorous, and very traditional).

We know a lot more than we do from Zelazny’s first two paragraphs.  Zelazny dumps us into action; Barry Hughart, into backstory (which works because Ox is just that kind of talker, a consumate storyteller, and we are completely in his power).

In both, we get a heavy dose of the character’s attitude toward life.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s pretty important to get that down right away.

What else?

Mrs. Geiss watched her new student coming across the first-graders’ playground from her vantage point on the balcony of the old school’s belfry.–“This Year’s Class Picture,” Dan Simmons

The Egotists’ Club is one of the most genial places in London.  It is a place to which you may go when you want to tell that odd dream you had last night, or to announce what a good dentist you have discovered. –“The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers,” Dorothy Sayers

What had led me to abdicate in the first place was the realization that the time had come to drop everything and run for it. —Star of Gypsies, Robert Silverberg

On Friday, August third, 1923, the morning after President Harding’s death, reporters followed the widow, the Vice President, and Charles Carter, the Magician.  At first, Carter made the pronouncements he thought necessary:  “A fine man, to be sorely missed,” and “it throws the country into a great crisis from which we shall all pull through together, showing the strong stuff of which we Americans are made.” —Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold

Ye emporers, kings, dukes, marquises, earls, and knights, and all other people desirous of knowing the diversities of the races of mankind, as well as the diversities of kingdoms, provinces, and regions of all parts of the East, read through this boo, and ye will find in it the greatest and most marvellous characteristics of the peoples especially of Armenia, Persia, India, and Tartary, as they are severally related in the present work by Marco Polo, a wise and learned citizen of Venice, who states distinctly what things he saw and what things he heard from others.  For this book will be a truthful one. —The Travels of Marco Polo

I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one.  —No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

“Men half your age and double your weight have been slain on these wastes by Extremity of Cold,” said the Earl of Lostwithiel, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Rider of the Forest and Chase of Dartmoor, to one of his two fellow-travelers. —The System of the World, Neal Stephenson

As Red Connors put the sorrel up the slope he felt the big horse break stride and knew that it was all in.  —The Riders of High Rock, Louis Lamour

Georgetown, Washington, DC.  The surname of the family was Cox, the father a very successful trial lawyer, but the target was the mother, Ellie Randall Cox.  The timing was right now, tonight, just minutes away.  The payday was excellent, couldn’t be better. —Cross Country, James Patterson

It started when David came in from the lawn absolutely furious.  We were down at Farthing for one of Mummy’s ghastly political squeezes.  —Farthing, Jo Walton

The morning air off the Mojave in late winter is as clean and crisp as you’ll ever breathe in Los Angeles County.  It carries the taste of promise on it.  When it starts blowing in like that I like to keep a window open in my office.  There are a few people who know this routine of mine, people like Fernando Valenzuela.  The bondsman, not the baseball pitcher.  He called me as I was coming into Lancaster for a nine o’clock calendar call.  He must have heard the wind whistling in my cell phone. —The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly

Thirteen snippets, selected off one of my shelves because I like the openings.  I typed until I felt like “Oh, I’m hooked on this character,” then stopped.

Gender: Six clear instances.

Name: Five names (of the main character).

Occupation: Nine (some of these are really subtle, like the Sayers; only three were given even remotely directly)

Past Event/Background: Nine (again, some very subtle; only two were given directly).  A lot of the backgrounds and occupations were the same or were implied by the same details.

Appearance:  You can guess the appearance of all of them from these descriptions.  In only three of them are any physical details given (casts, Zelazny; strength, Hughart; hair slightly mussed from open window, Connelly).

Attitude: All of them.

Going by this random, un-scientific sample, I’m going to say the bare minimum of character goes like this:

  • Attitude.  The most important thing about your character is their personality.
  • Appearance, usually implied.
  • Occupation/role in society, usually implied.
  • A background, but usually implied, often tied to the occupation or vice versa.

Less important are name and gender.

Genres:  Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, History, Lit, SF, Western, Thriller.

Oops, it seems I was missing romance on that shelf:

“I didn’t mean to marry both of them!” “The problem,” said the duchess, leaning forward, “is not marrying twice, but marrying a second husband while the first is still alive.” —Duchess by Night, Eliosa James

In the summer of 1810, Mr. Edward Noirot eloped to Gretna Greene with Miss Catherine DeLucy.  Mr. Noirot had been led to believe he was eloping with an English heiress whose fortune, as a result of this rash act, would become his exclusively.  An elopement cut out all the tiresome meddling, in the form of marriage settlements, by parents and lawyers.  In running off with a blue-blooded English lady of fortune, Edward Noirot was carrying on an ancient family tradition: His mother and grandmother were English.  Unfortunately, he’d been misled by his intended, who was as accomplished in lying and cheating, in the most charming manner possible, as her lover was.–Silk is for Seduction, Loretta Chase

Gender: eight.

Name: six

Occupation: Eleven, with four given directly.

Past event/background: eleven, with three direct mentions.

Appearance: All implied, still only three direct descriptions given.

Attitude: Still all of them.

I’m sure if you read further–a whole page–that you’d pick up more solid details like hair color, height, etc.  But in order for a reader to get hooked on the characters (as I was), you don’t need the niggling details.  What their personalities are like, and what the character’s context is (occupation, background, appearance) seem to be far more important, and you’re probably better off implying what those are than baldly stating them–unless there’s a reason to do so, like Hughart’s Ox loving the sound of his own voice, or Magician Carter being in the newspapers, or the Duchess of Berrow, whose title tells more about her than her name itself.

To be fair, I should probably crack open a stack of my own story openings, but I’m scared of what I’ll find.

Mice are delicious.  But even more delicious are monsters, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night. –“The Society of Secret Cats”

When Nickolas was a young boy following his father into the woods in order to carry water while his father cut trees, his father would tell all kinds of stories of dragons and knights and fighting, and Nickolas enjoyed those stories very much.  However, there was one story that his father would not tell him. –“The Boy Who Would Not Sleep”

The door of Bill Trout’s bar opened, and a couple of people pulled their guns out.  The aliens weren’t supposed to come till dawn, but hell, who trusts an alien? —Alien Blue

If he’d meant to leave his wife for her, he shouldn’t have shot her horse. –“Miracle, Texas.”

Okay, not as good as I’d hoped, but not as bad as I’d feared, either.  Whew.

What do you think?





How to Read like a Writer


Goodreads for Writers


  1. Thought-provoking analyses. I must now open every book I ever loved and check them out for the same information…:-)

  2. De

    Tell me what you think!

  3. Bookmarked! I suffer from terrible beginnings. I am actively seeking a cure. You came up on one of the Twitter suggestions and I, thankfully, clicked the link. Thank you!

    • De

      Excellent. I tried it out on Tuesday afternoon on a new short story and was pretty pleased with it.

  4. I should have said “this is excellent” sooner.

    This is excellent.

    I didn’t say so sooner because I immediately had to go back and fix the beginning of my WIP. I’ve been trying to figure out what was wrong, and this was that.

    • De

      Thanks, and good, I’m glad it makes sense. It certainly has changed my opinion on the openings of books. I went to a used bookstore today…almost picked up CS Friedman, read the first few paragraphs, and picked up a LE Modesitt instead. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or not.

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