Introducing characters

It’s always tricky to introduce a new character into your story. As soon as one appears, you need to give a short sketch of their personality and their appearance. This runs the risk of breaking up the narrative.

Some authors are particularly adept at the skill of character introductions. For instance, in Great Expectations, Dickens wrote a very deft introduction for the lawyer Mr Jaggers. Young Pip is immediately dwarfed by the imposing presence of the grand lawyer. I particular love the telling detail that Jaggers’ hands always smell of soap. In one sentence, Dickens characterises both Jaggers and Pip, because we see the lawyer through the child’s eyes. It reminds me of how I used to hold coins in my hand when I was young and feel quite overpowered by the smell of the copper. Today, I barely notice the smell at all.

In my first novel, The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan, I introduce the employer of our swords-for-hire, Babaroussa, by showing her through Valderan’s eyes:

A huge gilt-framed painting dominated the wall behind which Babaroussa was sitting. This painting showed a man in the golden robes and backward peaked cap of the doge, standing on the wharf of Lirara, as it must have looked many years ago. Nobles in velvet and furs were lining up to kiss his ring and show him their obeisance. Valderan knew that this was Babaroussa’s grandfather, Henry IV, as he was in his pomp, just after his appointment and still some years away from the mysterious accident that cut short his reign while he was out picking blackberries.

While they waited for Babaroussa to acknowledge their presence, Valderan compared the doge in the painting to the old lady before him, trying to make out some family resemblance.

Both were short and rather plump. Babaroussa was now of an age with her illustrious forbear so that both had hair that was almost white. Each had the cold blue eyes of Lirara’s ruling class. However, there the resemblance ended. Benefiting from the generous brush of the artist, Doge Henry bore none of the heavier signs of age: Babaroussa’s hanging jowls, the wrinkled skin around her necklace of pearls, the eyes dull with the beginnings of cataracts, the rolls of fat that stopped her bracelets from falling down her wrists, the liver spots on her hands where the fingers glittered with diamond and sapphire rings. Her dress was simple, a plain grey, though of fine material. Babaroussa was devout, but she had a lot to be thankful for.

“So,” said Babaroussa at last, the black beauty spot on her cheek quivering as she talked, “You’re here, Valderan. No Mister Siskin, I see, though you’ve bought your pet along. I assume that Siskin is happy for me to place my payment into your hands, as usual?”

Babaroussa gave the impression that she was sucking on something as she spoke, as though her tongue were too big for her mouth.

(c) Alastair Savage, 2012


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