Why the First Chapter’s Different


The first chapter has to create a main character that’s worth caring about in some way.  That sets it apart.  Miles apart.

A main character has to be “sympathetic,” they tells us.  Not parasympathetic.

It means that your hero needs to be a victim in some way.  Big or small.  He doesn’t have to feel like a victim.  It’s better if he doesn’t.  But there’s got to be something to feel sorry for him about, even if he’s a serial killer like Dexter.

You need to find something personal (to you) that’s also happened to your hero.  That way you’re an authority on this kind of victimhood.

The elites harp about the importance of the author’s voice.  “Voice,” in my humble and yet infallible opinion, is simply a matter of how confident you are when you write.  If you stay close to home with your hero’s brand of victimhood, your writing will have a ring of truth and authority.  That’s your voice.

Otherwise, it’s tougher.  If you’re a better writer than I am, which you probably are, don’t worry about being the same brand of victim.  If not, I’m saying it’s better to stay close to home.

“Sympathetic,” as it applies to your hero, also means that he has a character flaw that your reader can relate to.  You lie a lot?  So does your hero.  It’s simple.

You’re loyal to your friends through thick and thin – “unless they piss you off.”  That’s just like your hero.

You can never admit to yourself when you’re wrong?  Sorry, your hero can’t be like that because, as far as you know, you’re not like that either.  You’d probably have to know somebody well who’s like that before you could write that sort of hero with any confidence or insight.

Sometimes you need a hero to carry out a plot climax that a person like you shouldn’t try at home.  You have to look outside yourself for this, of course.  But where to look?

Find an interesting quirky tough-enough person whom you know well, and maybe base your hero on her.  Or…

Read “Please Understand Me,” by Keirsey, and figure out what type of person your character ought to be.  This book shows you how to categorize personalities in a way that’s useful for creating characters in three-dimensions.  It gives you a glimpse into how differently the basic personalities think and feel. It was an eye-opener for me in my 20’s.  Wow.

For instance, I’m an INFJ.  The third letter, “F” is telling.  People with a “strong F” find it impossible to boss people around at work or to be tough-minded with children at home.  The second letter, “N” indicates that I’m more interested in theory and possibilities than in concrete things.  Small talk is almost like work for me.  I’ll talk all day about my narrow range of theories. The weather?  Football?  A good restaurant? When people bring up this kind of stuff my mind goes sort of blank.  I have to concentrate to think of something “normal” to say.  “Yes, just look at that rain!  Unbelievable.”  Once in a while, people will say I’m a good listener.  But it’s code for boring.  The truth is, I’m not boring.  I’m merely an “N” talking to an “S”.  But I digress…

These eight letters INFJ and ESTP (their 16 possible combinations, actually) are derived from a simple test.  If you don’t want to get labeled, don’t take the test.  Just read enough of the book to find your hero.  It will tell you organic details about your hero that you didn’t know.

“Put your hero in jeopardy.”  That’s great advice.  (Wish I could give credit to the person who said it on a CD I heard recently – bundled with a program called Power Structure – but that would take more time than I’ve got right now.)

When the reader sees a perfect stranger about to become a victim of something evil, presto, the stranger is a sympathetic character.  This is magic, almost.  You might use it early in your first ten pages.  Spell it out clearly, if your story allows it.

OK, so you’ve got a sympathetic, flawed character with a genuine personality type (including the appropriate emotional baggage) and someone evil is about to drop a piano on her head.  But that’s not enough.

The first chapter has to make that character interesting.  Here are some hack thoughts:

Have her say something enigmatic, maybe, like…  “Inspiration’s wings are clipped every morning by these fools.”

Have her say two things that are funny.  If you can write humor, that is.  They say humor’s the toughest thing to write.  I wouldn’t know, obviously.

Your hero’s heart melts when he sees a cat.  He’s buff.  He’s a decorated firefighter – fearless, sometimes so brave he’s a danger to himself, but… watch how he picks up this cat.  Like your grandmother.

Say your hero is deathly afraid of heights so she pays a personal trainer to blindfold her and put her in a plane with a parachute on her back.  He pushes her out.  They do this every Saturday.  It never gets easier, but she won’t give up… because there’s a secret she’ll only tell the reader.  It’s about her brother… before his psychotic break.

Or something like this… Your hero’s got a photographic memory for two-dimensional patterns, but can’t remember people’s names worth a darn.

Your female hero’s job requires her to stay in incredible shape.  She runs like a deer.  She’s cut from steel.  If she collapsed on the job, people would die.  People have died.  She’s a scrub nurse at an odd sort of place they’re still trying to keep secret.

OK, your first chapter’s got a specific type of hero who’s a victim of childhood violence, has a wicked temper if you cross him, talks baby talk to any cat he sees – even in front of outlaw bikers – and currently there’s a bad-guy plotting his downfall.  But that’s still not enough.

The hero is three-dimensional, yes.  He goes up, down, sideways, back and forth.  But there’s the four dimension.  He needs to show his past to the reader and then confide that he’s afraid of his future.  Fear is essential, they say.

First-chapter backstory must be uniquely odd and moving.

When I say “odd” I mean novel.  We’re writing a novel.  I think there’s such an emphasis on making things “believable” that we forget it’s a novel not a biography.

I can believe that your hero spent ten years working a desk job and coming home most nights to watch TV with his hamster.  But I won’t read about it.

A hero needs a first-chapter backstory that’s riveting – odd and interesting enough in and of itself to hook an average reader like me.  If you let up, if you get lazy, if you get self-conscious and don’t want to hear your sister say it’s not believable, you’re going to bore me and a lot of dumb guys just like me.

Sure, brilliant people – they’ll read anything.  But have you ever met one of these people?  No.  They both live in London.

First chapters tend to be boring because:

1.) The reader doesn’t care about the hero yet.

2.) The first chapter must be backstory-heavy.  (Backstory is boring unless you come up with something truly special.)

3.) First chapter action is relatively weak, meaningless and impotent.  (Only the later chapters can hold readers with action, suspense, love, little-known information, and insight into the human condition.)

4.) Showing is better (for the reader) than telling, as a rule, but in the first chapter, no matter what the euphemism, we have to tell enough about our hero to get readers to care.  (“Telling” is boring unless the information you’re telling is mesmerizing.)

Anyway, take the word of a slow reader and hack writer who’s never been published…

You need to dissect that first chapter as if your career depended upon it.  It might.

I’ve heard it said that the gatekeepers to this profession become sort of black-and-white thinkers after a while: “You can either write or you can’t.”  Apparently they make most of their negative decisions about manuscripts after reading the first few paragraphs.

Some heretics claim that their decisions are not based on the beauty of your language, the depth of your vocabulary, the freshness of your verbs, your clever twists of phrase, the absence of adverbs, the length of your sentences, the avoidance of simile, the avoidance of alliteration, or even the lyrical cadence of the words you’ve obsessed over.

I hear that if you want to make a living doing what you love most, it’s all about emotion and how quickly you, the writer, can evoke it.

M. Talmage Moorehead

2 thoughts on “Why the First Chapter’s Different

  1. Hello new friend, I write poetry mostly and not novels….yet:) your posts are very informative and I find myself thinking about past novels I’ve read and why I either loved or hated them. Makes a lot of sense:) nice to meet you and I look forward to reading more:) ps I don’t write novels as the grammar police would shred me like the pages of a phone book:)

    • Hi new friend! I’ll bet you would write a great novel. The less you worry about grammar and words, the more you can focus on story, characters, ideas, places, and plots. That’s the hard part and also the magical part. The grammar can always be polished up by a copy editor if you can afford one, or by members of a writing group. Good luck! 🙂

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