The Defining Scene – Character Intros

I coined the term DEFINING SCENE to describe a method I have used to introduce a main character in my books. This type of method is a technique used in the film industry. Picture Johnny Depp when he comes on the big screen for the first time in Pirates of the Caribbean. He doesn’t merely walk on and deliver lines. He makes a SPLASH. In an instant, the moviegoer knows this character by how he makes his first appearance.

You only get one shot at a reader’s first impression of your main characters. How do you set the stage?

1.) Devise a scene that gives your character a specific stage for them to perform—a showcase for them.

2.) Give them something to do that will show the reader who they are.

3.) Encompass as much of your character in this scene—in one shot—so the reader knows exactly what makes them tick, their values, their likes and dislikes, and lays a foundation for the rest of the book.

4.) Focus on CHARACTER. This is not necessarily about PLOT, unless you can devise a way that showcases your character and jumpstarts your plot, too.

5.) Build on the energy you’ve created with this introduction scene. If you put thought into this Defining Scene, the reader makes an investment in your character from that point forward.

The Defining Scene—Example

I created a character in one of my first manuscripts that was my take on an anti-heroine who is a modern Scarlett O’Hara. At the first part of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is self-centered and not very appealing as a classic heroine. But of course, we all know how her journey ended. To this day, she endeared the name of Scarlett to people around the world.

My character, Justine, starts out with a larceny on her mind while she’s dining with an older man in a fancy restaurant. Working as an acquisitions and mergers specialist for a major corporation, she is first seen blackmailing a man to steal his energy company out from under him. She’s ruthless and uses photos taken by a private investigator, shot while the man was with a young girl. To make matters worse, Justine has researched the man’s prenuptial agreement and knows that if he is proven unfaithful, he’d lose everything. Needless to say, Justine is not a traditional heroine, but I infuse other aspects into the scene to manipulate the reader into liking her—or maybe not hating her as much—by the end of her intro.

Below are key attributes I wrote into the scene to tip the scales in Justine’s favor with the reader.

A.) She is opposite a very shady man who is worse than she is. He cheats on his wife and has affairs with under-aged girls. He’s completely unscrupulous and even propositions Justine in the end. By comparison, she’s an angel.

B.) Within the body of the scene, the reader learns more about Justine. She has a past I hint at. She is sensitive to the plight of the underage girl she accuses him of having an affair with. I save her past for later, but a hint is all the reader needs. Not much back story is required. The hint teases the reader with a little mystery, too.

C.) Acting as a conspirator with Justine is a forthright young man, Graham, who is her assistant. The way I portray him is a really nice guy who cares for his boss, despite her bad behavior. This manipulates the reader into seeing Justine the way Graham does. If Graham comes across as credible and sweet, these qualities pass to Justine by association.

D.) And because Justine kept Graham in the dark on what she had planned, she’s seen as his protector. She may be able to live with her “any means to an end” choices, but she doesn’t force him to go along with her—for his sake.

E.) Justine comes off as vulnerable and sensitive, with an identifiable and self-deprecating humor readers can relate to. By the end of the scene, the things she values become more apparent. (I even considered having her take a doggie bag home for her pooch.)

F.) Justine may come across as a ruthless person at the start, but by the end, she is portrayed as a person who might champion a good cause, without a thought for money if it’s for a valid reason.

I could have simply brought my female character into the story as a ruthless acquisitions employee, getting her assignment from her boss and wanting to dazzle him. Her boss is a man who wants to steal an inheritance out from under a nephew he’s never met, who is living off the grid in Alaska. Her boss lies to Justine about why he wants her to locate this guy. She would have gone off to Alaska in search of the missing heir, an urban goddess out of her element in the wilderness. That would have worked too, but I wanted the reader to wonder about her scruples. I also wanted her vulnerability to show from the start. I needed the reader to keep an open mind about who she is. Plus what happens at the beginning also comes back to bite her in the end as a plot twist. Everything comes full circle for a reason.

It takes thought to plot this type of scene, but remember it’s the first scene for a major character. It’s as tough, or worse, than coming up with that ever important where to start the story detail. If you know your character, you will be able to construct a scene that will showcase their unique point of view.

Do you have special ways to introduce a main character as a writer? If you’re a reader, can you share favorite book characters where the author introduced them in a memorable way and why that stuck with you?

36 thoughts on “The Defining Scene – Character Intros

  1. Jordan, today’s post is one of the main reasons why so many writers and would-be authors visit TKZ. To see into the mind of a fellow author and perhaps learn how a writer’s logic works.

    A number of comments on my post yesterday involved character vs. plot. Your blog today is a great example of how a solid plot supports strong, well-thought-out characters. I hope that many new writers that read your post will realize that writing a great story is NOT EASY. It can be fun, exhilarating, frustrating, rewarding, and so many other emotional traits, but it takes work, lots of work. Great job.

  2. I introduced a high-powered character in one of my books by having him descend in a helicopter. The other characters all hear the thwump thwump thwump of the rotors and run outside to see the massive machine landing. The man opens the copter’s door and drops to the ground before the craft has finished settling. This helped establish the character’s drive and energy.

  3. Jordan, I read that scene on your web site. That is one of the best scenes I’ve ever read. And your breakdown of the scene is awesome and very helpful. When I grow up I want all of my scenes to be like that!

    That being said I don’t think there is any one way to intro a character any more than there is one way to write a story. Each book or character I have written kind of has their own way of coming out. I wish I could nail it to one formula that would work every time, but I guess that wouldn’t be very creative-writerly.

  4. Reading this post reminds me that writing is not for wimps. LOL! When I think about all these components it takes to create a great story opener, it’s enough to give you an anxiety attack.

    I have spent weeks on a story opener for just that reason (and I’m still not satisfied I’ve nailed it).

    But it’s all worth it when you write and write and finally, the character has peeled himself off the page and come alive.

  5. Thanks, Joe. I’ve asked myself the chicken vs egg question about plot and character with my stories, but found both were meshed in such a way that I couldn’t determine what importance I had placed on each component. That’s why I work back and analyze what and how I do things so I can share ideas, but it helps me too.

    Any plot, no better how cool and innovative it may be, can ALWAYS be improved upon with great in-depth characters. For me, that takes thought and layering in on the edit process. These scenes don’t happen perfectly on the first pass for me. That’s why I edit and reedit the same scene while the character’s motivation is still fresh in my mind.

    And yes, writing isn’t easy.

  6. Kathryn–that’s a larger than life character intro. The average Joe would think of doing that. A great way to introduce a character with splash.

  7. Good morning, Chaco. Thanks for reading that scene on my website. I have a FOR WRITERS page with posts on craft, promo, etc. Glad you’ve been out there.

    And I totally agree. The minute anyone makes a formula, it stifles creativity, unless people are willing to bend the rules. And I’ve found that each book is different. You must go with your instincts with each project.

    Pick what works for you, then go with your gut on anything else. Books are filtered through your personal experiences too, another reason any novel you write will be uniquely you.

  8. BK–I completely agree. And a book opener and defining scenes are the hardest part for me. But isn’t it worth it? Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  9. Matching Socks–thanks for your comment. I’ve learned a lot from this blog and the other authors too. I’m editing my next YA novel now, using craft insights I got here at TKZ. I feel lucky to be a part of this.

  10. Ha! Kathy–I never sold this book. It was my first attempt at a novel and this scene was a rewrite but I haven’t had time to finish the revisions. My mother is on me for this. It may be a book I self pub, because it falls in the romance category, not my usual thriller. But I love the characters and miss them being in my head.

  11. My favorite one is for my WIP’s lead character, a female assassin. Walking through a curry restaurant in downtown Yokohama, she’s so focused on trying to get the drop on some yakuza (for revenge, which I explain later) that she ignores everything around her. As she enters the kitchen and passes one of the cooks, he calls her a stupid half-breed (baka ainoko), and she proceeds to scare the crap out of the entire staff by putting a butcher knife to his neck until he apologizes. It’s more intricate with her internal thoughts and what not, but I think it’s a beautiful introduction for the reader to her personality.

  12. You had me at Female Assassin, Fletch. I love a great anti-hero and I believe that as an author, I should push the envelope on portraying the dark side to a character like that (often painting myself in a corner) just to see how creative I can be to make the reader still root for them. With you picking a woman assassin, you’ve already got a challenge as a writer. But I think this is what’s most exciting about what we do. And when it pays off, it’s a beautiful thing.

  13. And Fletch–Isnt it creepy sometimes to be in the mind of an assassin? Man, they are wired in a whole different way. And it takes a solid writer to break with conventions to do a character like that justice, PLUS make a reader care what happens to them. Thaks for sharing your WIP. Sounds like a great story. I’m in.

  14. Good stuff. Thanks for opening your writer’s mind and giving us a peak.

    Do you find a challenge or conflict in determining which element comes first…hook or character? It is often stated that action scenes are not effective when reader is not invested in those involved. Intro of those involved (e.g. defining scene-character)takes up some space.

    Other recommendations stress the importance of starting in the midst of action (e.g. “first page” exercises TKZ).

    Ideally both character intro and story action should occur at the same time. I think I’ve got it! All that is necessary is to reveal complex, intriguing characters in the midst of compelling, can’t-put-it-down action within a few initial pages.

    One can only try, try and try again. Jordan you’ve helped me understand the goal. Great educational posts lately TKZers. Thanks.

  15. Jordan, writing this character has been SO HARD. I love it. Trying to make her a compelling lead has forced me to really look at the darker side of my own mind. You’re right. It’s sort of frightening what goes on in there and has left me a bit concerned that I might be going crazy. I like writing female leads, though. Makes me stretch my abilities. The story is pretty dark, and, believe it or not, the other characters are far more ruthless and sinister. The project is my attempt at an homage to Lustbader’s Nicholas Linnear series and Eisler’s John Rain novels, only with a woman in the driver’s seat.

    Question, I do my own take on some of the kills in those novels. Do authors take offense to that sort of stuff?

  16. Hey TJC–

    I think of the opener or hook as a separate animal unless the main character is a part of it. Many times, they are not in my books. Hope that doesn’t mess up your understanding.

    Our first page lessons or critiques were about starting a story at a compelling spot and in such a way that will keep an editor or agent reading. The main character could be a part of that or the story could just start with an intriguing bang or atmospheric moment. 300 words is not enough time to completely set up a defining scene, but that word count stresses how important it is to have a solid start that an industry professional can’t put down.

    In my books, I want the reader to savor the main character’s appearance, so I don’t combine “hook” and “defining scene” often. (Never say never, right?) Since I focus on crime fiction, my intros often start with a crime. I also think my stories give a face to victims of crime, for that emotional component. I want the reader to know what’s at stake through the victim’s eyes.

    Also, there are times that I’ve started a story right where I feel it needs to start, without thinking about a hook until later, after I’ve gotten a feel for the characters. Then I go back and write that hook. I’ve never been disappointed with that process. I’ve used it several times now and found it works for me.

    Having said all that, I think an opening action scene can work if the character is interesting enough, as you’ve summarized. For example, I’m a sucker for a dark character type with a hint of a compelling back story. (Kathryn’s helicopter drop guy and Fletch’s assassin are good examples of books I’d want to read for larger than life characters.)

    Character seems to draw me in first or keeps me interested. An action scene with a bunch of characters takes longer for me to invest my attention. And at some point, the story needs to be told through someone’s eyes to make it more interesting and get the reader into the POV of a character with a lot to lose and the most conflict.

    As Chaco has said, every book can take on a different feel. A craft point can work in one book but in the next, you may find something different works best. In the end, I think it’s best to follow your story telling instincts. And try new things with each book. That’s the only way I learn.

  17. Fletch–Although it’s a scary place to be, I think it’s vital that when you write a dark character, the antagonists have to be darker than your anti-hero. Good instincts.

    And you bring up a couple of interesting points.

    First–a guy writing a woman in fiction. I think that will really stretch you as an author. It might be easier to take a strong woman and “almost” make her a man to do it, but it’s those vulnerable spots that you give her that will define you as an author and make your character resonate with women readers. Kudos to you for not avoiding the challenge.

    I love writing male characters, to give me insight too. I often laugh at the differences between genders. I love putting scenes back to back where the male character thinks about what happened, then have the woman doing the same. That can be really fun.

    Invariably, I write the dialogue for a man, then turn around and delete the sentences down to the bare essence, because guys don’t tend to elaborate. And describing a woman from a guy’s POV is interesting too.

    How do the rest of you guys write genders different from your own?

    Second–I’ve never tried to take a specific killing from another author’s book and redo it. But after reading David Morrell’s FIRST BLOOD book, his first Rambo, I loved the scene where he stayed in a guy’s head as he died. That concept stayed with me and I did my own version of that, but not using anything of his scene–only the notion of POV author craft. I didnt even go back and reread his scene until I had hatched mine.

    For some reason, I don’t read the genre I write in while I’m doing a book, so I’m not overly influenced by it. I read YA while I’m writing thrillers, for example.

    But what do the rest of you guys think about Fletch’s question of paying homage to a writer’s kills?

  18. Going to step out of my comfort zone – rarely do I comment about what “I’ve done”, being a total non-expert n’ all.

    In my first book, the character intro was tame, not particularly slow, methodical or list-like, but (sigh) a somewhat obvious set up. It’s not a bad book, in fact it won an FWA award, but I learned so much through the process that, when I wrote the 2nd book, my approach was totally different.

    In book 2, my character finds himself caught in the middle of an instant dilemma. By the end of the first chapter, the reader “knows” the character well enough to be “invested” in him & the story & understands that the kid is in a real “pickle”.

    Well, that was uncomfortable.

  19. Jordan, my female leads are always Hawksian women, so for me the difficulty comes in making sure I strike the right balance between femininity, sexuality, and assertiveness. And when it comes to description, I tend to focus more on brand names and types of clothing then on how they look. For example, I had a character who took a Nancy Gonzalez clutch with her everywhere she went, and she had her hair highlighted, Brazilian style, at least once a week.

  20. Jax—Thanks for breaking out of your comfort zone. The thing is, anything you comment might get the attention of another author (pubbed or not) who can learn from your struggles, your successes, or your thoughts. That’s what this blog is all about. Sharing what we do is important and I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to do that here.

    Congratulations on your award BTW. And it’s particularly great that you didn’t settle for the award, you strove for excellence with your next book. Good for you, my friend. I just love hearing that. That alone could inspire another author–including ME.

    I believe that my best book is always my next one. It forces me to strive for something new to me. As much time as I spend on plot and characters, I also work hard at how to tell that story as far as author craft–things I want to learn.

    In my first YA, I used flashbacks to shed light on a cold case mystery as well as share a love story. Each flash had a reason that was fully melded into the present day story. I had to ask myself–if I delete this scene, would the story still make sense? If the answer was YES, then I cut the scene. Everything needs a reason to move the plot or advance the relationships. I’m all about “narrative drive” to keep the pace.

    I also want my challenges to read as simple for the reader, even though the craft part may be hard for me. Challenges really pump me up.

  21. I give my characters funny hats and Hobbit feet. That’ll always get people’s attention according to my cousin Leonard.

    Actually there are some characters I am so intimately involved with that I get a little creeped out writing them, like I’m invading their space or something.

    For a couple I ended up putting out shorts via podcast or ebook to help define how they became who they are. One in particular, Kharzai Ghiassi, Persian American CIA deep cover guy, does not make me feel like I’m invading because I actually identify with him. I want to make him strong and connect him to readers. And that can be a little creepy in itself.

    Thanks to help from an unnamed super-beta reader I recently made a major format change that tries to both speed up pace of the story and intro Kharzai in a big way. And I think it’ll work…as long as the rest of the book comes together likewise.

  22. Hey Fletch–

    Your clothing idea reminds me of a scene in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman is debating with his male roomie, Bill Murray, about what he should wear for a dinner.

    “I can’t wear that. She’s already seen me in it. I want to look pretty for her. Besides, the stripes cut me across the bust. That makes me look fat.”

    Murray looks at him and says with a straight face, “I think we’re getting into dangerous territory here.”

    The same way I cut male dialogue down, I cut down how he describes being attracted to a woman. A woman might remember how the guy looks AND all the atmosphere around them that sets a romantic mood. She’ll remember every glint in his eye, every breeze that tostles his hair, and how the moon plays on his skin.

    But a guy might say, “She bounced where a woman should bounce.”

    I’m oversimplifying, of course. And that set up reads as cliche, but it’s fun to show differences in how the genders react to each other, no matter how you interpret that to be.

  23. Dangerous territory indeed. The other day I found myself having a rather in-depth conversation with a friend about whether she needed to wear bra with a halter dress she’d just bought. My gonads shrink just thinking about it.

  24. Fletch, just the thought of that conversation made me peek out of my office to make sure my wife wasn’t waiting to smack me with a frying pan. Sheesh!

  25. OMG, Fletch. You’re such a closet perv. LOL I’m still laughing. Thanks for the chuckle. Always a good thing while doing revisions.

    I can just see you being invited to some woman’s house and go rummaging through her closet–all in the name of research. LOL Maybe YOU should be the character in your next book.

    You crack me up.

  26. I had an author friend tell me that his mother called to correct him on his sex scenes. If that’s not a ‘nad punch, I don’t know what is.

  27. “Safety glasses?”


    Protective gloves?”


    “Instruction manual?”


    “Okay people. I’m going in to make sure no comments have been trapped in the making of this blog post. Stay in your seats and don’t try this at home.”

    [Insert Jeopardy music here.]

    “Ah…all is well. Even Basil’s linked message made it through unscathed. Very cool.”

  28. I introduced one of my main characters pretty blandly, sitting in front a computer doing his boring job. I didn this to show how he wasn’t too keen on what he was doing, but then he finds a clue that starts the action rolling.

    My other main character is introduced walking through an airport affter getting off a plane. She is going over in head how the bad the coffee she just had was, and then gets cornered by a CIA agent tht she isn’t too fond of.

  29. Ha best intro for a character would be the villain in Kite Runner. When the protagonist goes back to Iran or wherever it is the first thing you see is the villain throwing stones at some frail guy in an arena, until he finally kills the guy.

    It’s not exactly the first time you see the villain, but it’s the first time you see the villain as an adult.

  30. John–Sometimes a good way to indoctrinate a reader into a character is to give a glimpse of their world. Sounds like a challenge.

    And Taylor–I never saw Kite Runner, but that sounds like an unforgettable intro…and frightening.

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