Character Development Starts in Chapter One
We writers spend a lot of time working on plot, and that’s great. Plots are fun. I mean, who doesn’t like a murdered coworker or a cupcake bakery in trouble or a zombie invasion??
But in most genre fiction–and especially romance–dynamic characters are the lifeblood of your story.
A well-developed character is someone who is different at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. They’re different because of what happened to them over the course of the story.
That’s where your romance plot come in. Your plot is there for one reason: to provide the tests that force your protagonist(s) to change.
This is why romance readers are reading.
Readers are not simply reading a story for plot. They’re reading for change. More specifically, character change. They want to see THIS person go through THIS plot, and as a result, change. Transform. They want the overall character arc.
You can think of it this way: plot = character tests. The more tests, the harder those tests, the bigger the character change, the louder the cheers at the end of the story.
You want the reader cheering!
So you need to get your readers connected to your characters, fast, so they start feeling All the Feels.
But you can’t spend a lot of time explaining your amazing characters, can you? Of course not! Readers aren’t here for explanations. They’re here for Story.
And your story starts, as you might expect, in Chapter One.
Story Begins in Chapter One
Your story has to start being Story on page one. That means change. Change of circumstance & change of character.
But that’s a bit of a Catch-22, isn’t it? To show change, we need to establish what already is, so we can let readers know it’s changing.
Didn’t know I was going to go all meta on you, did you??
But regardless of any Catch-22 for the storyteller…Chapter One is still your launch.
You need dramatic events, unfolding on the page, in the here-and-now world, events that force change into the world & protagonist.
But how do you change things your reader doesn’t even know about yet? How do you impart a story when you haven’t established anything yet? How do you reveal a character your character will fall in love with if you can’t explain anything about them??
One word: conflict.
Conflict Begins in Chapter One
Conflict is the A+ best way to build character, even in chapter one.
At its most basic, conflict stops your character from getting what they want in the way they want it.
Conflict lets you show vs. tell. It lets you develop your character by making them work harder. It lets you reveal your character to the reader, exposing their strengths and weaknesses, without resorting to long passages of narration, backstory, and description.
It’s not that these are bad; it’s that they’re generally not as engaging, especially in the early chapters.
I have lots more to say about backstory! Sign up to find out when the “Crafting Must-Read Backstory” masterclass goes live.
There are lots of kinds of conflict, and many ways to work with it. Today, we’re focused on something very specific: how to get conflict in your opening chapters to develop and reveal character.
We’re not going to worry about whether it’s internal conflict or external conflict. The key is to understand there has to be something stopping your character from getting what they want…even in the beginning of your novel.
If you’ve ever heard the advice, “Start with action,” I’m going to show you what that means, why it matters, and how to do it, even if your books aren’t action-packed thrillers.
Let’s dive in.
We’re going to begin by talking about where many writers go off the rails in their opening scenes. Rather than launching the story, they put the reader in a fictional waiting room, milling around until things truly start happening a few chapters later.
Opening Chapters: Set-Up Vs. Story
(Important caveat to everything that follows: These are not rules and there are no ‘shoulds’–it’s all in the execution. Anything can work. We’ve all read books where every ‘rule’ gets broken and it’s glorious. That said, there is, “Um, if you miss this thing, you’re likely to lose readers’ interest.”)
Set-up is “how they got here” and “why they’re like this.”
Those things matter, but not as much as you might think.
Readers will go along for the ride even if they don’t understand all the whys and hows…as long as we have a character who’s worth reading about.
This is where a lot of us go off the rails. Right here in Chapter One.
As writers, we want to establish the world & character so deeply and powerfully that readers will be stricken dumb by our character’s utter awesomeness.
It’s a laudable goal. But sometimes we go about it in a way that delivers the exact opposite.
Generally, our intent with these early scenes is to ‘establish’ something: world, plot, character.
That’s going to kill your opening.
You can ‘establish’ all you want, but you must also give your readers a story.
Anytime you find yourself saying, “But I need to establish…” or “I need to set up….” or “I need to explain…” you’re in the danger zone.
Telling Vs. Showing Scenes
One way we go off the rails in our openings is we spend too much time explaining. We simply explain, usually via narration, too much Stuff.
Stuff the reader doesn’t care about yet.
What doesn’t the reader care about early on?
They don’t care how the character got to this moment in time (backstory).
They don’t want a dissertation on how the world operates or the History of Things.
They also generally aren’t terribly interested in your protagonist’s friend group…unless that friend group displays signs of Becoming A Problem.
And the reader almost never cares to be told how Great or Interesting or Broken or Alpha or Beloved-By-All your character is.
No one wants that.
It isn’t (only) that your protagonist is beloved by everyone who’s ever met them, or that your main character has a perfect friend group (as dangerous as these things might be). The problem is that you told us these things.
Your reader doesn’t want to be told much at all.
They want to see it in action.
And the even bigger problem?
Everything went according to plan.
That’s a BIG problem.
More on that in a minute.
Low Conflict/Low Motivation Scenes
Another thing writers do is to set the character in a series of uneventful, low-conflict, and more importantly, low-motivation scenes.
Basically…stuff happens. But it’s life stuff.
Story isn’t real life.
Story is hyper-reality.
Conflict is the best way to make things “hyper,” even in Chapter One. It’s the most powerful tool the storyteller has.
Simply put, with conflict, you can establish & reveal everything you need to establish and reveal, even in your opening scenes.
The Dangers of the Ordinary World
We often have early scenes that place the character in their Ordinary World.
Ordinary worlds are great and often necessary for film. But for the written word, I’m a bit of a heretic on ordinary worlds, because they can be more difficult to do, dramatically.
It’s hard to keep a reader engaged if there’s no change or tension. Scenes that do little more than explain our character, rather displaying them in action.
So, the character drives somewhere and thinks about Things.
They have a meeting.
They sit at the kitchen table and reflect on why they’re still living with mom.
They get coffee with a good and uncomplicated friend and talk about Stuff.
These kind of “ordinary world” scenes, in fiction, too often revert to the author EXPLAINING a character(s) to the reader.
The problem is that their actions in the scene aren’t driven or important, and generally, there are no obstacles to achieving their goal. In fact, they might not even have a goal.
And then, in most cases, the scene doesn’t actually change anything.
That’s not Story.
Story is about change and transformation–of a world &/or a character.
So whatcha gonna do about it?
How do you establish what needs to be established, but still begin the story in chapter one?
How do you make your characters worth reading about in chapter one?
More specifically: throw some boulders in their path.
Pebbles Vs. Boulders: Character Development Via Conflict
Picture this: You walk into work and your desk is covered with small pebbles. Maybe some dust. A desiccated leaf or two.
You furrow your brow, look around, think, “Jeez, what’s this, is the roof collapsing?”
But no, it’s not. You might call Maintenance or your supervisor, ask around to see if anyone else had pebbles on their desk. Post a picture of it to IG. But in the end, you brush the pebbles off and get to work.
That’s what pebbles do. They let people get on with things.
That’s bad for drama.
Now, picture this…what if you walk into your office and there’s a BOULDER on your desk?
How long would it take you to get back to work? A long time. For lots of reasons.
First, you can’t actually get to your work, as it’s sitting under a boulder.
You have some problem-solving to do. Pebbles can be brushed off, literally and figuratively. Boulders take a lot more work. And from this, a whole cascade of character-building events emerge from the fog of your story.
Boulders Develop & Reveal Character
First, the presence of a boulder itself forces you into action. Assuming you want what’s on the other side of the boulder, you have to do something in response.
Second, the boulder creates far stronger emotions. When you have stronger emotions, you take more dramatic actions.
Third, what you choose to do will be different than what someone else would do. Your choices reveal you.
That’s exactly what you want for your masterpiece.
Your characters don’t have to react well to boulders. They don’t have to be successful in climbing over them. Feel free to have them utterly fail to get around the boulder, or in their attempts, to create even more problems for themselves. That’s always fun.
Often, that’s precisely the point.
What else can rolling a boulder into your character’s path do for your opening chapters?
Boulders Show Vs. Tell
Adding conflict–yes, even in Chapter One–is the essence of “show, don’t tell.”
Don’t tell us your character is quirky; show them being quirky, by how they handle the boulder.
Don’t tell us self-doubt is their fatal flaw; show them making a mistake or losing an opportunity because they were wracked by uncertainty.
Boulders Establish Worlds
And then there’s the mystery of it all. Boulders on desks can create worlds.
Boulders let you establish the world through the type of boulders you roll in their path (magical spells vs. government agents vs. meddling neighbors vs. self-doubt)… and in how the world reacts to the protagonist’s response.
You can use boulders to establish your story’s tone, infusing scenes with humor or eeriness or tension. You can establish rules of the world.
Using a boulder, you can deliver all sorts of information & cues to the reader, and still be telling a story.
So go drop a boulder on your protagonist’s desk. Disrupt their world in Chapter One.
Throw a roadblock at them and let us get to know them by seeing how they respond.
Writing Exercises: Conflict & Character Development in Your Opening Chapters
Take a look at any early scene. Does the character explode off the page? Is there any reason for the reader to turn the page?
The ONLY reason readers turn the page is to find out what’s going to happen next. That means something needs to be happening…so they can wonder what’s going to happen next.
If there’s nothing for the reader to wonder about…if your character is feeling kind of mill-y around-y, drop a boulder in their path & force them to react.
If you want to dig into expert-level strategies for building scene-level drama on every page, check out RWL’s “The Two Things Every Scene Needs” Masterclass!
Try these steps:
1) Give your character a goal/want—something they’re trying to achieve or avoid in the scene.
The goal itself doesn’t have to be huge: getting a cup of coffee can work.
If you’re struggling to find a goal for your protagonist in an early chapter, look at what they’re already doing in the scene. It doesn’t matter what it is! For this exercise, I don’t care if they’re doing classic protagonist “cardinal sins,” such as driving in a car Thinking About Things, or looking in the mirror, describing what they see for the reader. The key is, they are doing something. For now, we’re going to work with that.
2) Make them want that thing a lot in the moment. i.e. Give them a reason it matters that they do this thing.
This is their motivation.
Motivation is where to focus if you have a less-than-powerful scene goal. It doesn’t matter what a character wants; for drama, it only matters how much they want it and what they’re willing to do to get it.
The cup of coffee isn’t just a cup of coffee; it’s sustenance and battle armor. Maybe they’ve been up all night and can’t think straight and really need that cup of java before a meeting with their boss.
If they’re looking in the mirror, give them a reason they need to be looking in the mirror right now. Maybe they need to pluck their eyebrows or pop that zit before the student council meeting.
If they’re driving while Thinking About Things, can you find a way to make their destination more meaningful? Maybe they’re on their way to an important meeting with a client or to pick up a family member from the airport.
3) Drop a boulder in their path so they can’t easily achieve that thing.
Put something between them & the thing they want, something they have to face & problem-solve around.
In other words, don’t just give them the thing they want. Make them fight a litel for it.
The boulder can be an antagonist, sure. It can just as easily be traffic, a snowstorm, a neighbor’s loud music, or their own inner fears and doubts.
And remember, the only reason someone problem-solves their way around a boulder is because they want what’s on the other side. See Step #2.
If you’re struggling to come up with a proper boulder, if your mind is blank on how to develop an antagonistic force for this small moment in time, make a list of 20 things that could get in the way of a random person accomplishing/achieving whatever you wrote in Step #1. Again, small can be mighty.
Do you see what we’ve done with these three steps?
In Steps #1 and 2, we gave your character goals and motivations.
in Step #3, we created conflict and tension. You know what happens then? Your reader turns the page.
But we’re not done yet. Because the magic happens in our next step (okay, the whole process is magical.) But our next step is where you do the most powerful character-building & character-revealing work of all.
4) Have your main character respond in unique, noteworthy, or surprising ways.
This is the big reveal of your character. You want your character to respond in ways that exemplify them. Ways that would make the person who’s known them the longest say, “Ah, yes, that’s pure [insert your character’s name].”
Remember: the character who practices deep breathing exercises in a traffic jam is different than the one who abandons their car and starts walking.
Who is your character? Reveal them by making them respond to a boulder.
The more extreme you can make their reaction, the more unique or surprising, the better.
Stuck? Try this:
Ask: What are two (2) your protagonist’s most defining characteristics, personality traits, inclinations, etc? How can you use one (or more!) of those to inform their reaction?
Make a list: List three (3) things someone with these traits/characteristics/inclinations might do in this situation.
Make a second list: What is a more intense version of each of the three things above? A little extreme or over-the-top? A little ‘extra’?
Writing Prompt: Sketch a 200 word moment with your character responding in an ‘extra’ way.
Pro Strategy: If you’re still stuck, going “against type” is one simple, powerful way to develop (& reveal) a unique and surprising character. Show your romantic lead doing something we wouldn’t have expected, based on the clues & information you’ve given us so far. The car mechanic who flips on classical music and does breathing exercises in a traffic jam. The elderly librarian who gets out and hikes down the highway.
And there’s one more awesome thing you can do with boulders in the opening pages of your novel.
Revealing Your Character's Fatal Flaws
You can use boulders to reveal how your character is uniquely ill-equipped to handle the plot & romance problems that are coming their way. Some emotional way they’re going to get tripped up. Some belief or approach to life that’s really not going to serve them well in the pages to come (…but might actually save them in the end??)
Readers might not see the significance of their actions yet, they may not understand they’re seeing a fatal flaw, but as soon as the story problem appears, as soon as the other romantic lead appears, they’ll get it.
The character who turns on classical music and tries breathing exercises in a traffic jam might be someone who’s trying to tamp down on their impulsive, nay, reckless approach to life. Or maybe someone who’s too complacent and needs their hair mussed a little.
The character who throws the car into park and walks off might be someone who needs to learn to let others take the lead…or to rein in their ruthless ambition…or to be less reckless…or to slow down and tolerate uncomfortable emotions.
Boulders can also reveal secret or under-appreciated strengths & skills! The classical-music-listener might have the accepting, mindful presence that will get them–and the other romantc lead–through the jungle they’re about to get dropped into. The walk-don’t-sit-in-traffic protagonist might be the one person with the grit and determination necessary to beat the bad guys in Act III.
Drama Means Trouble
Don’t let things go fine for your characters. ‘Fine’ is death to drama.
That’s really the essence of what I’m saying with all my wordy-words here.
I want you to mess your character UP.
In every scene.
Including your opening scenes.
Take a look at your opening scene. What’s your protagonist doing? What’s happening in the world around them?
Does everything go pretty much okay? Does their car ride get them where they’re going on time without a smashed bumper? Does the heart-to-heart talk with a buddy in a coffee shop reveal a good friend who has no ulterior motives or opposing opinions?
Start throwing conflict at them in every scene, including your opening one. Mess things up. Back them into a corner and let us see how they come out: fighting, crying, carrying a puppy…or a thermonuclear device.
This will reveal them far more powerfully than any narrative passage that tells the reader who they’re supposed to be.
SHOW us who they are.
Often, all this requires is revising an existing scene to add a boulder.
Give them something they want. Give them a reason they want it. Then roll a boulder in their path that prevents them from (easily) getting it.
As they respond, they reveal.
A Million Characters In Fiction...And Then There's Yours
Dropping boulders in your characters’ paths will allow you to display their unique angles.
It will make them more vivid.
It will infuse them with personality and color, and suck the reader in as they wait, no doubt breathlessly, to see what your heroes & heroines (all genders) are going to do next.
If you don’t have your character grappling with any drama (aka: conflict) in your opening chapters, they’re going to be washed out on the page. You’ll explain them but we won’t feel them.
The narrative might be all sorts of fun, but the character…? They’ll remind us of a hundred other characters in fiction.
Everything’s a microcosm in story.
Everything a person does (or doesn’t do) reveals who they are.
Use this truth.
Don’t tell us about your character.
Expose them for who they are, by putting boulders in their path and letting them respond in unique, no-one-else-is-like-this ways.
It’s an incredibly powerful strategy to launch your story and your character.
It makes readers turn the page.