Have you ever read a book and realized you just don't connect with the main character(s) in any meaningful way? I know I definitely have, and it's the first reason I choose to DNF (Do Not Finish) a book – if I can't care about the main character, I just can't get into the book in general. That might be a me thing, but I know it's true of many readers too.
Today, I'm going to give you a list of things readers must learn about your main characters in the first few chapters. Knowing these things rounds out the readers' experience of your MCs, and it's critically important to creating that emotional connection up front.
For what it's worth, I use Milanote as a tool to keep all of this info handy when writing. That way I can refer back to the character profile I created when I sit down to write. I also love to use my Emotional Thesaurus when I'm brainstorming characters to round out this list!
What's their physical appearance?
How old are your MCs?
What do they look like. BONUS POINTS if you can explain why. For example, he's grizzled and scarred because of that damn war...etc. She walks with a limp because of that car accident.
Are they short/tall, young/old, thin/not thin, what does their hair look like, do they have any physical disabilities.
Keep in mind you aren't going to list these out like bullet points, we should learn them in dialogue and action. Maybe the character can't reach something because she's too short, or she laments her friend's perfectly straight hair because her curls are unruly.
What are your characters' good characteristics? What are they really good at?
What are the really great things about your main characters, things that will endear us to them and really make us feel for them.
Positive doesn't necessarily mean likable. For example your MMC might be an arrogant a-hole, but maybe he's really driven and devoted to his cause.
Not all characters need to be redeemable, but in the romance world we usually see at least some of this from both main characters. And we need a glimpse of it in the first couple chapters
What are your characters' negative characteristics ?
Let's be real, nobody is perfect. Your characters aren't perfect either. Maybe your FMC has a heart of gold but a quick temper. Maybe your MMC is highly loyal to his family but initially mistrustful of all outsiders. These negative traits make your characters feel more realistic. Nobody is 100% likable all of the time.
What are your characters' motivations - what drives them to keep going?
What is your character striving toward? Getting back home after an alien invasion? Finding a missing family member? Getting that guy they love to hate off their backs? Whatever the thing is, make it clear up front. This can be done in one sentence even! But we need to really understand what gets your character out of bed every day. BONUS POINTS if we can cover things they aren't willing to do to achieve that (this helps us to set some moral boundaries for what the person will or won't do in the story). EXTRA BONUS POINTS for character arc awesomeness if they end up having to do that thing they said they'd never do to get the thing they really really want!
What's their family situation?
Is their family alive or not? Located close by? Do they see one another? Are your MCs youngest or oldest children? You don't need to answer every single one of these questions in your first few chapters, but giving a teeny hint into the MCs family life gives us a sense of who they are and what they're likely to hold as important to them.
What's their emotional wound?
I highly recommend the emotional wound thesaurus when you're figuring this one out. It lists a few hundred actions that would have deep emotional ramifications for a person. And those ramificiations make them behave in certain ways. That's the emotional wound. What has happened to someone to make them guarded, mistrustful, angry, withdrawn, emotional etc. Knowing that deeper why behind who they are helps us relate to them and feel for them. For example, in my first book the FMC has recently lost a sibling in a surprise accident. Your emotional wound doesn't have to be that drastic though, just something that affected your character.
Where do they fit in their world?
Is your character a leader of something? Follower of something? Regular joe or someone respected in the community? A quick sense of who they are in their world is helpful in painting a broader picture for your readers
BONUS POINTS - Hinting at their character arc
This is something I've seen done really well, but another idea is to hint at that character's storyline by suggesting things about them. For instance, maybe your character is terribly polite and wishes he/she could grow a backbone. In my reporter example, she's shy and introverted, but wishes she was more of a bulldog like her colleagues. This is by no means a must, but it's a way to help readers connect with that character right up front.
Extra reading on this topic: