Any actor will tell you that entrances are important in life and on stage, but this seems equally true in fiction. So important that centuries back the Old Master novelists developed some standard ways to present a character to readers. When you break it down, in fact, it seems as if writers have been using virtually the same template for introducing characters from the 18th century till today. How does it work?
First, set the scene. The background against which a character appears subtly conditions the psychology of the reader toward that character. Here’s F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby winding up to give us Daisy Buchanan, that novel’s combination ingénue, femme fatale, and embodiment of the American Dream at its most luscious. Remember that Fitzgerald’s narrator is Nick Caraway, a young man from the Midwest being shown around a Long Island mansion by Tom Buchanan, a polo-playing acquaintance from his college days and Daisy’s husband.
We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
Nobody came closer to poetry in prose than Fitzgerald, and this passage gives us high-ceilinged, rosy-colored rooms; fresh grass; open windows through which breezes are blowing curtains like flags; a wine-colored rug evoking Homer’s eternal wine-dark sea; and two young women in white taking flight on a sofa. What could be more promising? It would be hard to write a passage containing a greater number of tugs on the reader’s store of good feelings.
Step two is to pick an aspect or two of the character that will become crucial in the story and use it to intrigue the reader from the get-go. The technique, as David Lodge writes in The Art of Fiction, relies on the ancient rhetorical device of synecdoche – a part symbolizes and embodies the whole. It’s like sketching a face. An artist with a talent for drawing will evoke the image with a few lines and allow the viewer’s eye to fill in the rest.
Here’s our first view of Daisy. Remember that Daisy is Nick’ second cousin (so he’s met her before), but this is the reader’s all-important first encounter.
The younger of the two was a stranger to me. She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall. If she saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave no hint of it — indeed, I was almost surprised into murmuring an apology for having disturbed her by coming in.
“I’m paralyzed with happiness.” She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)
The other girl, Daisy, made an attempt to rise — she leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression — then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room.
Note how the clever Fitzgerald delays the entrance a bit by having Nick’s eye first light on the other young woman. But she doesn’t hold his attention for long. First gestures and first words are deeply significant. Daisy gives us a laugh and an attempted ironic witticism that doesn’t quite come off and then a charming murmur.
And suddenly we’re into step three of proper introductions – the impression the character makes on the story’s central consciousness, the teller of the tale, in this case, Nick. That line “as if she said something very witty” is Nick’s thought. He sees through Daisy and yet is well aware of the quality that draws men to her. To say Daisy’s charm rests on her sexual attractiveness is too easy. It’s that and much more. Daisy is a character with contradictory traits – a deep sense of playfulness that verges on frivolity. In the novel’s larger symbolic terms she embodies the ambiguous glories of succeeding at the American dream; she’s the easeful life of the very rich incarnate.
Nick continues with the story:
I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
I told her how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way East, and how a dozen people had sent their love through me.
“Do they miss me?” she cried ecstatically.
“The whole town is desolate. All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”
“How gorgeous! Let’s go back, Tom. Tomorrow!” Then she added irrelevantly: “You ought to see the baby.”
“I’d like to.”
“She’s asleep. She’s three years old. Haven’t you ever seen her?”
“Well, you ought to see her. She’s ——”
Tom Buchanan, who had been hovering restlessly about the room, stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“What you doing, Nick?”
“I’m a bond man.”
I told him.
“Never heard of them,” he remarked decisively.
This annoyed me.
Note how much Fitzgerald leaves out about Daisy at this point. We’re given little physical description, no attempt to get inside her thoughts, only exterior description of her words and actions. There are her “bright eyes” and “bright passionate mouth,” but Daisy’s musical voice that promises “gay, exciting things” is the trait Fitzgerald fastens on. Like any good poet Fitzgerald is not shy about using repetition to achieve his effects.
The passage reads in good part like a scene from a play. Fitzgerald shows us Daisy in action, but he tells us about her only in terms of Nick’s evaluation. Nick sums up the dual sides of Daisy and then Daisy acts these out before our eyes.
The passage also contains the novel’s story in miniature. We get Daisy and her faux front of gaiety, a gaiety that thrills men and yet has something “sad” in it, and then we see the heavy hand of Tom Buchanan, her husband, first slamming the windows shut and cutting off the breeze and then hijacking the conversation away from Daisy. She’s a prisoner in her marriage without the force of character to stand up to the brute of a man she’s married to.
We’ll learn much more about 23-year-old Daisy by the end of the novel, an old-school southern belle of the ball from Louisville, Kentucky. The entertainingly useful Shmoop Web site sums up the symbolism of Daisy’s voice this way:
Daisy’s voice is irresistibly seductive, and all the other characters are drawn to her because of it. This brings to mind the image of the Siren. In Greek mythology, the island-dwelling Sirens sang to passing sailors, and their song was so seductive that the sailors would throw themselves into the sea and drown trying to get to them. Daisy is kind of a modern Siren; when Gatsby stretches his arms out to the green light across the water, we can almost imagine him throwing himself into the Sound to reach her. Her voice speaks of everything Gatsby desires – Daisy herself, wealth, social status, true happiness – and its call is irresistible.
Well said. And through setting, synecdoche, and his narrator’s judgments, Fitzgerald manages to convey all that about Daisy in just a couple of paragraphs at first meeting.
Note: I need to take a short sabbatical, so this post and the next few posts of mine will be Greatest Hits from our Advice for New Writers vault.