We Need to Know Your Characters Before We Care

You can start your novel any way you like.

Bad way: open your book with your character waking up. We all do this every day, and it’s been done in books so many times, that you’ll need some pretty fancy writing to make it interesting. And if you give in to the urge to over-write, it will look as if you’re trying too hard.

This article, Miss Snark’s First Victim: Baker’s Dozen Observations, offers you another bad way to start your book, with your character in extremis:

“Here’s the TRUTH:  It’s INHERENT CONFLICT that keeps a reader reading.  And ‘conflict’ is not synonymous with ‘action’.  If I’ve just met your MC for the first time, and she’s jumping off a cliff or smashing her car into a tree or shooting somebody or lying on the ground bleeding from every orifice,  I’m not going to care a whole lot about why.  I need a reason to be invested in your character BEFORE she’s bleeding or running or crashing or killing. “

I think this is the best opening to a novel I’ve ever read:


Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.

Of course, it’s the opening to Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina.

Do you want to know more? Of course you do. You read on.

That’s the single goal of the first page of your book: to get readers to the second page. From the second to the third, and so on. Every page must drive the reader to read the next. You can’t let up for a moment.

Look at your Work in Progress. Does it each page entice your readers to the next? We need to care before we’ll read. Make us care.

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Angela Booth is a top copywriter, multi-published author, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills on her websites. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her business books have been widely published.