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 than they were in Chapter One.
The’ve changed over the course of the novel in some fundamental way.
That’s where your plot comes in. It’s there for one reason: to provide the tests that force your protagonist(s) to transform.
We’re talking about character development.
This is why romance readers are reading.
Romance Readers Are Reading For Character Arcs
Romance readers want spies and murder mysteries and zombies and cupcake bakeries, absolutely! But romance is a character-driven genre. That means, readers want the overall character arc.
Readers are not simply reading for story events. They’re reading for change. More specifically, character change. They want to see THIS person go through THIS adventure, and as a result, change. Transform.
You can think of it this way: plot = character tests. The more tests, the harder those rests, the bigger the character change, the louder the cheers at the end You want the reader cheering!
So you need to get your readers connected to your fictional 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! That’s not what character building is about.
Readers aren’t here for explanations. They’re here for Story.
And your story starts, as you might expect, in Chapter One.
Your 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 character 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 reader 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 a story 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 toward something, however small it might seem. It lets you reveal your character via their actions (and reactions!), exposing their strengths and weaknesses, without resorting to long passages of narration, backstory, and description.
It’s not that these narration, exposition, or backstory 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 your fictional characters.
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 things start happening a few chapters later.
If you’ve ever been in a Zoom waiting room, you know about this. It’s certainly not hell. It’s…nothing. You’re just waiting for things to start.
Don’t put your readers in a fictional waiting room, waiting for the story to start.
Give them a character worth reading about in Chapter One.
Introducing Your Story Character: 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. I’ve read books where every rule gets broken and it’s glorious. That said, there is, “Um, if you miss this, 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 they have fictional characters who are 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 & story 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.. you’re in the danger zone.
Too Much 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 story 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.
The problem with these types of scenes isn’t (only) that your protagonist is beloved by everyone who’s ever met them.or has been rejected by everyone who’s ever met them.or that your main character has a perfect friend group…or an absolutely terrible friend group (as dangerous as these generic things might be). The problem is that you told us about these things.
Your reader doesn’t want to be told things.
They want to see it unfold in front of them, so they can figure it out themselves.
And the even bigger problem?
Everything probably went according to plan. In other words, there were no surprises. No reversals.
That’s a BIG problem.
More on that in a minute.
Opening With Low Conflict-low Motivation Scenes
Another thing writers do is to set the story characters 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 main characters 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, your fictional character drives somewhere and thinks about Things.
Might have a meeting.
Sitting at the kitchen table and reflecting on why he’s still living with mom.
Getting coffee with a good and uncomplicated friend and talk about Stuff.
These kinds of “ordinary world” scenes, in fiction, too often revert to the author EXPLAINING the fictional 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 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.
Because adversity builds character.
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, chink, “Jeez, what’s this strange little thing?” You might call Maintenance or your supervisor. Maybe you ask around to see if anyone else had pebbles on their desk. You might post a picture to IG or Snapchat. 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.
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.
That’s exactly what you want for your masterpiece.
Adding conflict-yes, 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.
And then there’s the mystery of it all. Boulders on desks create worlds. You can use boulders to establish the world and tone. You can infuse the scene 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 showing us how they respond.
This is how character building is done.
But I Can't Yet!
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all real cute, Kris, but I can’t do it in my opening chapters because XYZ and ABC.”
You need more set-up time.
You crave more storytelling.
Your inciting incident doesn’t come until a couple chapters later.
You want to showcase that your character has a bestie, so you can tear them apart later.
I’m saying, yes you can do it. You need to do it.
In fact, these scenarios are precisely the time to drop a boulder. They’ll let you develop the world, reveal character, establish relationships with secondary characters, and set the tone, all while spinning a tale your readers want to read.
And if you’re not ready for Big Story conflict, focus on scene-level conflict.
Donald Maass calls this bridging conflict, and it works wonderfully.
Expert 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…something that makes them wonder about what’s going to happen next.
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 techniques & 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’re doing something. For now, we’re going to work with that.
2) Make them want that thing a lot at the moment. i.e. Give them a reason it matters to do this thing.
This is their motivation. Motivation means stakes! What’s will they get (or what do they thinkthey’ll get) if they’re successful? What will happen if they fail?
Motivation is where to focus if you have a less-than-powerful scene goal. It doesn’t matter whata 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 reasonthey 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 domineering 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 problem-solve around.
In other words, don’t just givethem the thing they want. Make them pursueit.
When you do this, you reveal them.
It 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.
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, make a list of 20 things that could get in the way of them accomplishing/achieving whatever you listed 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, 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].”
The character who, when stuck in traffic, puts on some classical music and practices deep breathing exercises is a different person than the one who throws the car into park, gets out, and hikes down the highway.
Who is yourcharacter? Time to reveal them by making them respond to the 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.
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.
Boulders let you developcharacter, by putting tests in their way & forcing them to respond.
Boulders let you revealcharacter in fun, dramatic ways without resorting to excessive inner narration & exposition.
Boulders let you establish the world via 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 their response.
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 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 also might save them in the end).
Readers might not see the significance of their actions yet, they may not understand it’s 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 her 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.
This, my friends, is foreshadowing. Readers love it!
Foreshadowing is building suspense.
Their boulder-response can mean anything you need it to.
But make it mean something. Your readers will thank you.
Drama Means Trouble
Don’t let things go fine for your main 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.
Your readers won’t notice the character arcs if they don’t truly know your character.
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 are going to do next.
If you don’t have your character grappling with any drama (aka: conflict) in your opening chapter, 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 the story.
Everything a person does (or doesn’t do) reveals who they are.
Use this truth.
Don’t tell us about your character.
Use actions in storytelling.
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.