How to Sell a Lead

Unlike most types of sales, this one involves no transaction.

The agreement is unspoken, and is measured only by the customer’s insatiable desire for more.

It’s the sale of a lead character.

Last week we talked about the two different strategies to hooking readers, and how many classic works build interest gradually through a character-focused approach, rather than an action-focused approach. This is not to say there’s no place for swashbuckling beginnings, but not every book needs to start with a hair-raising scene in order to promise worthwhile content.

At least, the master authors didn’t think so.

Check out these famous opening lines:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884)

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.”

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)

What do all of these have in common?

Well, if you look closely, you’ll see that each opening line sets the stage in human terms—that is, it raises a question about the central person in the story.

How was Scarlett able to hold these men spellbound?

Whose family fiasco are we about to hear?

Who is the narrator of Gatsby tempted to criticize?

What does Tom Sawyer have to do with this next story’s narrator?

What is the connection between Marley and Scrooge?

You’ll also notice that none of these opening statements introduces an urgent crisis—no one is about to die, get kidnapped, or lose his family. At least, not yet.

Any motivation we have to keep reading is solely based on the character traits or human elements alluded to in the first line.

And I say “alluded to” because at this point, any statements made have yet to be proven. How do we know Scarlett will never meet a man she can’t charm into adoring her? In what way is the family Tolstoy describes uniquely unhappy? How do we know that the person Gatsby’s narrator has in mind doesn’t deserve criticism?

Each situation holds a bit of mystery, meaning that we can’t possibly know the characters yet… but do we have a taste for more?

We can usually answer that question after the first few paragraphs, or even chapters. It’s true, not every author who draws the reader in slowly begins with an opening line about his characters, but if the entire first chapter or two introduces nothing noteworthy about a character, then not many are going to keep reading. We have to at least begin to buy the character.

So what makes readers “buy” a character?

Like any sale, there are different elements of interest and involvement from beginning to end. We don’t have the same sense of awe and wonder toward our new washing machine once we’ve run it a few times as we did when the customer service dude showed us its fancy computerized features. And sometimes we hesitantly order something off the menu, later to be surprised at how good it tastes (those are the lucky times).

Similarly, when we commit to following a character through a story, we don’t always end up as pleased with him or her as we were at the beginning—or sometimes we find ourselves strangely fond of someone we didn’t expect to like.

Or (even weirder) we’re fascinated by someone we abhor.

This is where selling a lead character differs from any other type of sale: the reader does not always have to like what they buy.

Some stories are told around despicable, conniving villains whose actions are deplorable—and yet everyone wants to know what happens next.

The thing is, selling a character doesn’t mean making him good, it means making him memorable. And in order for something to be memorable, there has to be something unexpected about it.

Think about it: when was the last time you got anything meaningful out of a completely monotone speech? Or found yourself motivated to finish a movie whose ending was all-too-obvious? (See my post on tropes for more on this.)

We don’t remember things that are predictable—or if we do, there is nothing meaningful added to our perspective after having experienced them. A lead character doesn’t have to win your moral approval, he has to win your fascination—and that happens when the author gives you bits and pieces of personal information on him that prevent him from fitting into a mold.

He might be mean, but if he has a pet lizard that he tucks into bed each night, he suddenly becomes more interesting.

She might be a nun, but if she’s constantly struggling not to flirt with a priest, she becomes more than a typecast.

He might be a university professor, but if he never graduated from college, there’s a back story worth hearing.

In short, the concept behind writing a character people will want to learn about is the same concept behind brand marketing: it could be good or bad, but if it’s memorable, that’s half the battle.

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