Character Who Goes There

Your opening should give the reader a person to focus on. In a short story, this person should turn up almost immediately; he should be integral to the story's main action; he should be an individual, notjust a type. In a novel, the main character may take longer to appear: Anna Karenina doesn't show up in her own novel until chapter eighteen. However, somebody interesting should appear very early. In Anna Karenina, it's Anna's brother Stepan, who is both integral to the plot and very much an individual.

To see how these goals can be accomplished in a very short space, consider the opening of Raymond Carver's six-page story "Fat":

I am sitting over coffee and cigarets at my friend Rita's and I am telling her about it.

Here is what I tell her.

It is late of a slow Wednesday when Herb seats the fat man at my station.

This fat man is the fattest person I have ever seen, though he is neat-appearing and well-dressed enough. Everything about him is big. But it is the fingers I remember best. When I stop at the table next to his to see to the old couple, I first notice the fingers.

Here, immediately, is a character for the reader to focus on. Actually, two people, but let's discuss the narrator. She's not even talking about herself, yet she emerges not as an abstractjob description ("waitress") but as an individual. This person is observant ("I first notice the fingers"). She is reflective; she has obviously given some thought to the incident she's about to relate to Rita. Her speech is simple and repetitive ("... and I am telling her about it. Here is what I tell her"), suggesting not only a definite socioeconomic class but also a certain kind of mind: one that can consider a small incident meaningful enough to emphasize, meaningful enough to weigh, eventually meaningful enough to be changed by. All of this is hinted at subtly; most readers will not stop to analyze the character at this point. But readers will sense that there is a character here, a genuine person.

Contrast Carver's opening with the character in the following unsuccessful beginning:

The fall day was hot. Ted Henderson drove to the school and parked the car. He wore a dark blue suit, black shoes, and the maroon tie Kathy had given him for Christmas. He climbed the steps and opened the door. Inside, it was cooler. The school office told him Mrs. Kelly wouldjoin him soon. Ted sat down to wait.

When Mrs. Kelly arrived, she led him into a conference room. They sat down.

"I'd like to discuss my daughter Jane's grades," Ted said. "Her report card wasn't very good."

This opening has exactly the same number of words as Carver's (91), but what have we learned about Ted Henderson? That he wears a suit, that someone named Kathy once gave him a tie for Christmas, that he has a daughter named Jane who isn't doing well in school, and that he has gone to visit Jane's teacher.

But what kind of person is this Ted? Is he conferring with Mrs. Kelly because he's worried about Jane? Or angry at her for doing badly? Or angry at Mrs. Kelly for not doing a better job as a teacher? Does he feel that Jane's poor performance reflects on him?

Is he hoping the whole thing can be taken care of quickly because he has an important corporate meeting at eleven o'clock? Or has he carefully asked his boss for the whole day off so he can schedule the conference at the convenience of the teacher, an educated woman who makes him nervous?

Is that dark blue suit his only one, a little shiny in the seat and usually wornjust for church? Or is it expensive English wool, conservatively tailored? Or maybe it's a sporty-looking Italian silk, the tie knotted only loosely, the trousers breaking at exactly the right place over leather loafers.

The point is, we haven't a clue about Ted Henderson's personality. It's possible that the writer will individualize him more as the story goes on—but we probably won't read long enough to find out.

Most successful openings give the reader a genuine character because most stories are about human beings. A few, however, are actually about something else. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," for instance, begins with several paragraphs about villagers gathering for an annual lottery. None of the villagers are individualized much. Few are even given names. The equipment used for the lottery is described in much more detail than the people. That is because in this story, the lottery itself is the main character, with a life and force of its own—which is the whole point.

Similarly, some novels delay the entrance of a genuine character until chapter two, when something else has enough force to substitute. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath devotes chapter one to a detailed description of the devastation done by drought to the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. It works because this dry desolation becomes both motivator and symbol for the entire novel. Such structuring, however, is rare, and you will probably be better off getting people on your novelistic stage as quickly as possible.

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