How To Properly Introduce
Your Protagonist

Pleased to meet you! Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
— The Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil

By PJ Parrish

Life is a cocktail party, as Mike Jagger once sang. So is fiction when it comes to introducing your protagonist. (tortured metaphor alert. More to come.) I’ve noticed a trend in our First Page Critique submissions of late. Our submitting writers are having trouble introducing their main characters to their readers.

Most recently, James dealt with this issue in his Sunday critique of a self-described “comic noir” submission titled The Book Shop. James wrote:

The narrator is passive. Maybe that’s intended at the start, but at least give him some feeling—annoyance, aggravation, mad because his wife left him—anything. (Note: We don’t know what sex the narrator is, and that’s a problem. I’ll assume for discussion purposes that it’s a man. But do something on this page to clue us in.)

I had exactly the same reaction on the two points James mentions. First, I assumed the narrator was a woman! Which tells you there is a very basic problem. And second, as James says, the narrator is passive in feelings and thought. And the other character, the old woman, is vividly drawn, which intensifies the problems.

Maybe this post is going to sound too basic for some of you. But I think we need to review how to properly introduce your protagonist. This came up in a thread on my Facebook feed recently. Here’s some interesting comments from both readers and writers:

  • Mary Ellen Hughes: I tend to get a mental image pretty quickly. Some physical description will come into that mental image, but other parts get ignored. And I can’t tell you which parts my brain picks up on and which it doesn’t. My only request, as a reader, is that you give me a hint quickly. Don’t tell me on p 250 that the MC is a short redhead if you haven’t told me that before — b/c she’s already a tall blonde to me.
  • Anonymous reader: I like getting a few clues, especially about things like height and weight that will affect their ability to do certain things or anything that would make them stand out in a crowd.
  • Barb Goffman: As a reader, I don’t love a lot of description. I often will find that even with description, the image I get of a character in my mind is different. What I often tell my clients is to very early on, when we first meet a character, tell the reader one memorable thing about the character’s appearance. And let the reader decide the rest for themselves. Too much detail annoys me. About the third time you describe your character’s “startling turquoise eyes” as being “startling” and “turquoise,” I’m going to get a little techy. I like a moderate amount of details.
  • Steve Liskow: Behavior is much more important than description, unless you’re talking about a giant or a dwarf. I submitted a story to a market last week, and only as I was writing the email, did I realize that not only did my character have no description (except male, by implication), he didn’t even have a name.

So how do you do a proper how-do-you-do? It’s not as easy as you might think. Consider first, what point of view you’re working in. If you’re using first person, you are greatly limited in what you can describe because everything must be filtered only through your protagonist’s “camera.” But there are pitfalls even in third-person POV.

Now, not all books open with the protagonist. Some might have a prologue or an opening chapter say, from the villain’s POV. But whenever your protag does appear, you must establish two things immediately:

  • Gender
  • Name

Here’s another thing that bugs me. Gender-neutral unisex names are popular now. Especially in fiction. So if you’ve chosen a first name like Blair, Casey or Jordan, you darn well better be clear if it’s a he or she. I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. Loved it more than I can say, but the first chapter is titled “Vincent In The Ocean” and it took me at least four chapters to get used to the conceit that Vincent is a woman. (a rather twee reference to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay).  Don’t be coy about this, please. It just annoys readers.

So how do your gracefully slip in your protag’s name? Third person is no problem, just slip it in as soon as possible. I always put “Louis Kincaid” somewhere on my first page. But for Heart of Ice, he doesn’t show up until chapter two:

He stood at the railing of the ferry, the sun warm on his shoulders but the spray on his face cold.

Twenty-one years ago he had stood at the bow of a ferry much like this one. Then, the air had been filled with the smell of diesel but now the ferry left nothing in its wake but a plume of white water and shimmering rainbows.

Then, it had all been about leaving behind the ugly memories of his foster homes in Detroit and going “Up North” to the magic island just off the tip of the Michigan mitten. It had been about eating all the fudge his stomach could hold, seeing a real horse up close and racing the other foster kids around the island on a rented Schwinn.

Now, it was all about her.

Louis Kincaid looked down at Lily. She was peering toward the island so he couldn’t see her face. But he didn’t need to. He knew what this trip meant to her. He wondered if she had any idea what it meant to him.

Only seven months ago had he found out he was a father. It had been a shock, but from the moment he saw Lily he was grateful Kyla had not done what she had threatened to do that night in his dorm room. He could still hear their angry words.

Hers—I’ll get rid of it.

And his—Go ahead.

He looked down again at Lily’s crinkly curls.

Thank God…

This book is about Louis connecting with the daughter he didn’t know he had. So I felt compelled to go a little heavy with backstory to “introduce” both Louis and Lily. But this is all you get. The forward plot takes over.

But first person is much harder. One graceful way is to deal with it in dialogue via a second person. James does this in his first book Romeo’s Rules on the first page:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.

“Mike,” I said.

“Happy to meet you Mike. Except…”


“You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“A football player, maybe?”

Name. Gender. Done. And a nice little physical descriptive detail to boot. Harlan Coben uses this technique often. Here’s an example from The Woods.

You can also be direct as Sue Grafton famously did in her opening of chapter one, book one:

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the State of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday, I killed someone and the thought weighs heavily on my mind.

Likewise, Jack Reacher needs no introduction. Yet Lee Child is always careful to insert the guy’s name at the get-go. Although we have to add a caveat here: In Killing Floor, Child switches to first person for Reacher and we never get his name. When you’re a international bestseller with 25 books under your belt, you can do this, too.

In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn is working in first person, toggling between husband Nick Dunne and Amy Dunne POVs. She titled each chapter with their names. This obvious ploy works mainly because she is also using a ticking-clock timeline with the fake abduction. Not recommended for beginners.

Another thing to establish as early as possible: exact age or age-range of your protag. And you should begin to establish the world view, education level or sophistication (or lack). Readers want to bond with and root for your protag and the sooner you can give them elements to grab onto, the better.

What should you not do when introducing your character?

  • Too much physical description. A nice hint, as James does with Mike Romeo above, is always good. We get a quick visual that Romeo is a muscular kinda guy. That’s enough to tweak our interest. But don’t get bogged down in this too early.
  • Too much backstory. I gave you my own example from Heart of Ice above as an example that is borderline maybe too much. But I thought it important to clarify Louis’s anxious feelings toward his daughter. Think of backstory as going to a cocktail party. When a stranger introduces himself to you do you want to hear this?

Hello, my name is Norman Feckless. I’m a really successful gynecologist with a practice in LA. But I grew up in Fresno and I can’t tell you what a hell hole that was. God, you should meet my mother… Nothing like my wife Janet. Janet is hot, man. But I meet a lot of gorgeous women in my line of work. In fact, I married three of my patients. Of course, not all at once. Did I mention that Janet left me last month? Just ran off with her yoga instructor, Nancy. I got to keep her cat, though. That damn cat hates me…

Another issue to consider — ethnicity. My protag Louis Kincaid is biracial. It is pertinent to his character arc and in a couple books directly figures in the plot. But via reader feedback, I found over the years that if I don’t somehow slip this fact in early, readers feel misled. I recently did a critique for charity and in 30 pages, the writer failed to convey the fact that her protagonist was Black. I mention this only because race was directly related to her plot, especially in the tense interactions with her white husband. Is “white” now a vestigial default in fiction? Given the dazzling and expanding range of ethnicity of crime fiction protagonists, do we still need to mention it? I would like to hear what you all think about dealing with this.

Last point, and this goes back to the problem James had with his First Page submission: It is important, when introducing your protag, that he or she not be a cipher. In the submission, the secondary character, an older chubby chatty woman is well drawn with idiosyncratic dialogue and description. The protag, by comparison is pale and emotional impotent.

I was engaged by the seal woman. The poor soul with no name — well, he’s that guy lurking alone in the shadows with a scowl and a glass of scotch.. Don’t leave your protag sitting on the sidelines. Introduce him with a few good lines and get the party going.

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

32 thoughts on “How To Properly Introduce
Your Protagonist

  1. Kris, great tips about a crucial but oft overlooked aspect of opening pages—give us enough to clue us in, but not so much that it bogs us down. A delicate but important balance. (And thanks for the kind mentions).

  2. Kris, I just accidentally erased a long comment which might be the Universe’s way of telling me to keep it short, so I will. Thanks for this. Older readers may quickly find themselves at sea in a novel if they (we) are not informed at or near the outset as to who is doing what.

    • Yeah, speaking of being at sea, I should have stressed Jim’s comment from Sunday about pop references. I, for one, adore Nina Simone, but I suspect you’d lose most of your audience over 60 if you mentioned her. 🙂

  3. As always, an excellent post. I recall a workshop early days in my attempts at writing that used your cocktail party example. Also, back story (which would include introductory descriptions, I think), should be an IV drip, not tube feeding.

    As for those using first person who choose to label chapters with the POV character’s name … after I turn the page, I’ve forgotten it. Sometimes I don’t even read chapter headings/titles. PLEASE keep grounding the reader in the text.

    • I second your emotion about chapter name tags, Terry. I generally don’t like them. If you read Mandel’s Glass Hotel, you will see what I mean — she comes thisclose to losing her readers because the book switches between years. decades and a phone book of characters. I had to stop at times and figure out who I was with and where. But sometimes, I liked that because it forced me to read more slowly. It’s a brilliant tour de force but at times maddening.

  4. Thanks for a great post, Kris. Wonderful review. I like to introduce my protag in action (opening disturbance) – my red-headed daredevil on crutches. As to your question on skin color, that quick flash of hair color, height, weight, physical prowess, and clothing, could include skin color as well. Add a dash of “pet-the- dog,” and the reader will want to join the protag for a drink (nonalcoholic for my middle-grade protag).

  5. “Maybe this post is going to sound too basic for some of you.”

    Not at all, Kris!

    Writing in close 3rd POV in a series, I struggle with every book to describe the protagonist in a fresh way that doesn’t sound contrived. Looking at herself in the mirror or store window is cliche.

    In one book, I mentioned she was sunburned and that a red-headed complexion didn’t do well in Florida sun. In a couple of books, other characters describe her in scenes from their POV.

    But introductions are always challenging and difficult to do smoothly. Thanks for the great suggestions.

    • The sunburn thing is a great device to tell us she’s a fair redhead. You get it immediately. You show it, instead of telling it. The mirror thing for description is SUCH A CLICHE! But I did resort to it in an early book. Wish I hadn’t. But at least got it out of my system.

  6. I do have a question – since there is a 400-word limit on the first page critique, is there anyway the author on Sunday might have done better with bigger impact on their disturbance rather than getting the protagonist out in front?

  7. Good morning, Kris, and thanks for this great advice.

    In my WIP, I have two young girls, cousins, who want to “help” in a murder investigation. The difference in their appearances plays an important part in the climax of the book, so I had to establish it early on. In Chapter One, one of the girls falls out of a tree and lands at the feet of my MC, on whom she’s been eavesdropping. When the MC rushes to help the little girl, she notes something about the child’s appearance: hair, eyes, clothes. When the second child appears at the base of the tree, she notices the difference in appearance and demeanor between the two. Although the children aren’t the main characters, they play important roles in the book.

    Since this is the third book in the series, the MC and her co-MC half-sister have been described before. However, in this book I touch on the differences in their looks and personalities as well. (That’s Chapter Two.)

    • Yes, using a secondary character is the perfect device to convey appearance. I do this often. Foils, side kicks, whatever you want to come them, come in handy. And yes, I get your point about how do you KEEP establishing physical traits in a series. I approach it by assuming a reader is always seeing my character for the first time whether it’s book 2 or 12. Readers who “know” a series character don’t mind this…they just sort of brush by it and move on, imho.

  8. Excellent reminders, Kris. I remind my readers that the detective in my Mayhem Series is black, but I filter it through my protagonist (his girlfriend). It’s tricky to give enough information without bogging down the narrative for readers who’ve devoured every book in the series. A line or two is usually enough.

  9. Excellent advice, Kris. Introducing a protagonist is no easy task. In my new mystery, currently in revision (3rd person), I put Meg at the heart of the action at the very beginning, juggling multiple things at once as a curmudgeonly bully of an old patron acts out. With my 1st person novels, I focus on my protagonist’s attitude and filter everything through that.

    Physical descriptions of our POV characters can definitely be challenging, I try comparatives, like “He was a tall, even for a man, and the first person I’d seen all day that I could look straight in the eye” is something I’d use to show my POV’s own height without stating it outright. Definitely something to spend some time on, given that you don’t want to stop the narrative to awkwardly describe your POV 🙂

    Thanks for another engaging and informative post!

    • Ha! I used that looking straight in the eye device myself. When Louis first meets his soon-to-be Lover Joe Frye, he notes that when she stood she could look him square in the eye. He had never dated a woman over six feet and he liked it.

  10. Character description is far more important in a romance than it is in a crime novel. Different requirements for different genres and audiences. Know your audience.

    Even in romance, it’s still better to let the reader know who they are than what they look like in that first defining scene. Viewpoint voice and the opening situation are major definers.

    And for the love for all that is good writing, don’t have the heroine think of her twinkling periwinkle eyes and red hair because real people don’t.

    • Don’t forget “emerald green sparkling eyes” and milky skin. 🙂 Point well taken about romance. If you read my romance books, you’d get a big kick out of my lavish descriptions.

  11. It is very hard to figure out how to intro your protag. Even reading the feedback examples you share above–each of those people focused on something different they look for so it almost feels like a crapshoot with each new book, trying to figure out the best means to intro the protagonist.

    I typically write in 3rd person and intro my character by name, although sometimes it feels too in-your-face. I don’t spend much time on physical description unless there’s a really good reason to take the time to do that in the opening.

    For me, I want to introduce only enough about the protag to be clear who they are and as you said–clarify gender (unless there’s a good reason not to) but then the rest of my effort is overall having an engaging first page. If the first page is good enough, it seems to me you can fill in pertinent protagonist stuff later on. But if they don’t stay to read past page 1, you won’t get the chance.

    • I know how you feel, BK, re the in your face intro. It feels contrived. Yet I think it’s like “said” in dialogue. I think the reader absorbs it and quickly moves on. So you write: “Joe Hicks looked down at the dead body on the beach.” To us, the writer, it feels heavy-handed and obvious. But I think, to the reader, they see it as a grounding moment and they move on.

  12. I enjoyed your post. It annoys me when I can’t figure out the basic details of the MC quickly. But for every rule there is an exception, and I have one for you. The MC of the Murderbot Diaries (series) has neither a gender or a name, yet is still fabulously entertaining. The genre is science fiction, so perhaps more latitude is granted.

    I’ve pasted the first paragraph of the first novella below. No gender, no name, but you do have an idea of who the character is, and that’s what counts. Have a nice day.

    I COULD HAVE BECOME a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

    Martha Wells. All Systems Red

      • Yes! There are now six novellas and novels. The first novella (All Systems Red) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. Network Effect (book 5) won the Nebula for best novel. I haven’t read the last two books yet, but I look forward to them. The four that I have read are entertaining. Murderbot’s voice is what sustains them. More books are contracted, so I would say this is a successful series. There is also talk of a tv series, although I’m not sure how successful an adaptation will be.

  13. Luv your cartoon opening, Kris. I can relate to that guy standing off to the side. 🙂

    I’ll throw my three cents into this writer’s party, if you don’t mind. I think it’s highly important to set your m/c/protag early in the opening scene. Your reader has to get an early feel for who they’re rooting for, and a decent description goes a long way to anchor it, especially at the start of a series. But all in moderation – gender, for sure, and a bit of a physical sketch including a flaw. No one’s perfect in real life. Certainly not me.

  14. It isn’t just a question of he or she.
    Many of us are genderfluid, transgender, non-binary or a combination of these identities.
    We might use the pronouns they/them.
    Or some of the neopronouns like Xe/Xim, Ze/Zir or combinations of those like He/Xim.
    The list is, by its very nature, ever changing in order to be inclusive as people express their gender identity.

  15. I’ve got a local phone book-they still publish it in my area-and I select a name at random and let them tell me who they are. Sometimes I’ll find an image of a person I know of and put it at the top of the page toi remind myself who the character is and what they look like. I can always change it later but it’s a starting point that I often need. I am reminded of Edwin Silberstang’s writing about his first novel and the first line in Rapt In Glory started with “Benny Katz stepped into his apartment” and he wondered “Who the heck is Benny Katz?”

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