Romance Writing Basics: Three Key Components to Introducing MCs
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
First impressions are important, and that applies to romance book characters too! While info dumps are tempting, introducing your romance main characters well takes finesse.
Last night, I started rereading Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient. The first time I read it, I was reading 100% for fun, but this time I am looking at it with a little bit more of a critical eye.
At just 30 pages in, one of the things I’m most impressed by is how Hoang introduces her MCs. It’s quick, we learn a lot about them quickly, and I’m instantly interested in not only their connection but also their individual lives.
So in this post, I thought we’d talk about how to introduce your main characters to get your readers instantly hooked, using TKQ as a reference guide, because I think Helen Hoang did an excellent job of this.
This is going to be fairly spoiler-free, as I’m only going to talk about the first two or three chapters.
Click here for TKQ synopsis, if you need it.
1. Character Appearance
Hoang rather famously doesn’t disclose Stella’s race, but she also doesn’t give us much of any description of what Stella looks like in chapter one. You may think that a character’s appearance is one of the first things the reader should learn, but it makes a lot of sense when you get to know Stella.
Her appearance is not something she spends a lot of time thinking about (which isn’t to say that she doesn’t look great). To cram a lengthy physical description into the middle of her internal monologue would have felt unnatural for her. What does feel very natural is when we get the description from Michael’s POV in chapter two.
Michael’s never met her before their first “date,” the first night she hires him. The only way he can identify her in the restaurant is by the description she left on her profile — a 30-year-old, brown-haired, brown-eyed woman wearing glasses. And then, of course, he goes all googly-eyed and we hear about appearance in more detail.
Describe your character’s appearance early, but wait until it’s natural.
2. Memorable Traits
While we don’t hear a lot about Stella’s appearance in chapter one, what we do get is a lot of memorable personality traits. We get a description of her office building, her work desk, and her exact routine from when she walks in the door to when she sits at her computer. What does that tell you about her?
We also start to see hints of her autism, like how she doesn’t like to be touched or she’s sensitive to perfume smells. Through flashbacks brought on by a conversation with her mother, we learn about Stella’s history with sex and her anxiety around it.
If you want your characters to get hooked, approach it the way you would a new friend. Sure, you notice their appearance, but the thing that makes you want to keep talking to them is their likes, their dislikes, their personality.
Focus on memorable traits when introducing your character; let the appearance take a back seat.
3. Hint at the Backstory
Backstory is an essential component of a well-developed character, but we don’t need to know everything immediately.
In TKQ, we first meet Michael when he’s deciding which piece of mail to open first — a medical bill and the results of an STD screening. The medical bills he pays are a driving force for him working as an escort. Dropping that bill into chapter two already has us asking questions and understanding that financial stress is a driving force for Michael.
This early on, we don’t learn what/who those bills are for, so it adds some mystery. Approaching things with a bit of mystery not only keeps your reader interested but also feels more natural.
Think of how you think of your own life. Do you pause for long periods to gaze forlornly out the window, thinking about the entirety of your relationship with a past love? No. It’s something small and random. You see a bag of Sour Patch Kids and remember the time your ex tried to throw one into your mouth but it hit you in the eye. Or you walk past the burrito place that you used to stumble into together at 3 am after last call.
So write backstory that way too. Keep it light and a bit vague. Your character isn’t rehashing every detail in their mind; they already know those things. Save the full story for later.
Plant seeds that will grow into the full backstory later on, but don’t give too much away.
Many different things can endear a reader to your characters, but an info dump is not one of those things. It's important to remember the fact that you're not just introducing your characters in those first couple of chapters. You're introducing YOU too. The reader is deciding whether they like you as an author. Avoid the mindset of, "It's a little clunky, but we just need to get this out of the way so I can start for real."
So, think about how your character thinks. Would they be thinking about their appearance? What triggers their memories? What makes their internal voice unique? Keep it light and keep it simple. It’s just the beginning. You have the whole book to show your reader the rest.