Friday, June 15, 2012

Do Your Characters Make a Good First Impression? Part One

As an educator of Sociology, I can tell you that sociologists believe we form lasting impressions of the people we meet within the first ten seconds. That's pretty fast, and I've found, often wrong. The impression, that is. But isn't it funny how that first impression sticks with you, hiding its sometimes nasty little face in the recesses of your mind, even after you've gotten to know a person, and realized that your first impression was wrong?

With our characters, it takes a lot longer than ten seconds, but it doesn't mean that the first impression is not important. As writers, we need to be very sure that our characters begin to initiate a good first impression, even if we intend to have that impression change later on. But "good" is relative, isn't it? Think about it... 'good' doesn't have to mean your MC is Miss Wonderful... it could also mean Miss Wonderful is actually a 16 year old high school witch... and not in the dictionary's definitiion of "witch," either. But your first impression could be 'good,' or perhaps a better word would be 'correct.' Keep in mind, however, that as your character grows and changes,  your readers' impressions of her will change, also, so don't mislead them with a too-far off first impression.

So... how to form that first impression? I think the very first thing you have to do is give her a name, because let's face it, people's names will almost always dictate how others perceive them... correctly or incorrectly. Now sometimes that means you have to do your RESEARCH...I know, that's a 4-letter word, but you better get used to it!

The reason for research? It depends upon what era you are writing about, and no, it doesn't have to be a historical novel as such. For example, some of the most popular names in 2012 are: For Girls: Emma, Sophia, Chloe, Madison, Taylor; For Boys: Mason, Ethen, Aiden, Lucus, Alexander. But go back just a few years to 1980: most popular names then were Jessica, Amanda, Ashley, and Megan; Michael, Matthew, Joshua, and Ryan. Even further back to the 1920's: Mary, Helen, Mildred, and Gladys; Robert, James, Edward, and Earl.

If your story setting is in the early 1900's, even up to about 1960, you are going to be hard-pressed to find a girl named Madison, or a boy named Aiden. By the same token, in today's world, you run the risk of having your novel put down by the first page if you name your MC Mildred. First names should be indicative of the era, without question.

Besides the era, another assumption your reader is going to make about the MC's name, right out of the starting gate, is that of Ethnicity. However, that is a post for another day! Part Two is coming up!

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. That was an interesting post! I've never given much thought to my character's names before, so they do make up a part in first impressions! :)

    I'm now a proud new follower of your blog, do drop by mine @ too!


  2. Hi Alicia, and thanks for following! I've always felt that names are a great part of our personality,and I think sometimes they create a personality for our characters that we didn't originally intend. Maybe that's why it's so important to make sure the name fits what we want our character to be..and then we just have to hope for the best. LOL

  3. Hi Mikki! I found you on Kelly's blog. I love that you're a sociologist. It irks me no end that YA characters aren't as deep and realistic as they could/should be. I bet your characters are full of complexities. I like them that way.

  4. Hello, Lexa, and thanks for the comment. Speaking of names, yours is very pretty! I've used Alexis for a character, but I've not seen "Lexa" before. Hmmm...!

  5. It becomes tricky when you need your MC to learn and grow and therefore not be the most likable character at first. I think that's when you need some sort of explanation for why they are the way they are right up front. Justification/something the reader can empathize with.

    1. I think that's where backstory comes in, but we have to be very careful how we do that backstory. Nobody wants to read an "info" dump about a character,but you (authors) can use a flashback, the character's thoughts or even a secondary character's thoughts about the MC,something subtle that gives a hint about what happened to make the MC the way she is now. Of course, that has to lead into how or why the MC changes as the story goes on.

      But your MC doesn't always have to change..well, maybe in YA they have to! I read a lot of mysteries, and a good example of one who never changes is Stephanie Plum in books by Janet Evanovich. Stephanie is a bounty hunter who is foul-mouthed, arrogant, brash, and so funny that readers don't want her to change. On the other hand, John Grisham writes legal thrillers, and some of his characters DO change.

      Kind of makes me our YA characters HAVE to change because they are still teens?