In the study of animal behavior, the term IMPRINTING describes the tendency of a hatchling to learn behavior by following and mimicking an individual it identifies as its parent figure. The term is applied similarly in psychology to describe rapidly learned behavior during a critical developmental period.
As a reader, I find myself naturally wanting to ‘imprint’ or identify personally with the main character of a novel I’m reading. This tendency is generally a desirable effect that most authors hope for, because if the reader is identifying with the main character, the reader will likely feel a kinship or familiarity with that character and, by association, the story. If all the crucial elements of the story fall into place correctly, that association translates to reader enjoyment of the story and appreciation for the author’s storytelling ability.
However, it’s obvious many authors deliberately sabotage that reader tendency to imprint on the main character by opening the story with a throwaway character that at first appears to be the main character. This ‘bait and switch’ technique is often used for shock value, or to introduce the setup or premise of the story. Unfortunately, when the author does not make it clear that the opening story character will soon be killed off or will not be seen again, it sets up the reader to be disappointed. This is akin to arriving early at a restaurant for a blind-date first meeting, seeing an attractive person walk in and imagining that’s the date, only to watch the possibility disappear when that person greets someone else.
This is essentially what the author does to the reader with a throwaway character the author takes the time to introduce to the reader without giving clues that this character is indeed making a temporary appearance in the story. Some authors go to the trouble of providing some family or background information about the throwaway character, or even showing the reader that character’s hopes and dreams – only to dash them against the wall like breaking glass when the character suddenly gets shot or run over by a car or blown up in an explosion.
This type of technique can be an effective way to show how high the stakes are in a story. But oftentimes it just ends up being an instance of the author pulling a fast one on the reader, or making the reader the butt of a bad joke. Not every reader is going to enjoy or appreciate the author’s sleight of hand. Some readers may subconsciously get angry at the author for deliberately tricking them by introducing a likeable character they’re eager to get to know better – and then pulling the virtual rug out from under their feet.
In my reading experience, this bait-and-switch technique is used mostly by writers of science-fiction, mysteries, thrillers, or horror. Romance writers rarely chance misleading their readers, because the romance story typically depends on the reader identifying quickly with the main character in order to help cement the romantic bond the reader is expected to vicariously enjoy. In other genres, especially murder mysteries, it’s pretty much understood that somebody’s going to die. And if the author decides to give a little background info on the victim to show the reader that character shouldn’t have died, that’s OK – as long as the author plays fair and doesn’t try to trick the reader into thinking some person is going to be the star of the story, not the victim. If a startling opening scene is used, the author should make it obvious, or at least give little clues to warn the reader that somebody in the scene is going to be killed. But many authors do just the opposite.
My irritation as a reader stems from the fact that most of the time there is no good reason NOT to warn the reader that an opening character is a throwaway character. For example, I happened to start reading a science-fiction story recently where a man in charge of a space station feared his career would go down the tubes when the artificial intelligence running the station got out of control and started shutting down all the systems integral to the station and the survival of the humans occupying said station. He briefly touched on the disappointment his family would experience because he was the only one of all his siblings to rise above the public dole to achieve career success. And now it was all coming to a swift end. His AI tech, a woman he didn’t particularly like, assessed the situation and recommended evacuation. The conditions deteriorated faster than even she realized, and she ended up ordering the evac shuttle pilot to shove off, even though they were waiting for two other people. The station manager was one of those people.
So, what happened here in this first chapter was a disaster in space. But what also happened was that the author got me to start caring about a character with whom she opened the story – then took that character away from me just when I was trying to get to know him better, and put another character in place of him (another character that HE didn’t like). Am I going to want to read more about this other character whom the first character described as analytically intelligent, and who calmly ordered the ship she was escaping on to leave before others could board? Hmm. Nope. I stopped reading after that.
I can see that the author wanted to set some difficult writing parameters for herself to overcome and turn around. She wanted to start off by angering unwary readers by using the old bait-and-switch routine, and then she wanted to up the ante by making the real protagonist someone who saved her parrot but let two people die, and didn’t even break a sweat doing it. Granted there were other things going on in the story to intrigue me to want to read more, but golly, by now I don’t like the main character, and my dislike is strong enough not to want to read further to find out about the big mystery presented in the opening chapter.
My point in going through all this is simple. Authors, DON’T annoy and antagonize your readers with cheap tricks and sucker punches (like the character bait-and-switch routine) unless you have a very good reason for doing so. Pick your battles and make those battles worthwhile to the reader, because unless you have a surefire way of making your readers stick around, you may lose them. When a story starts off on the wrong foot, many readers will decide it’s not worth their time to start over and give the author another chance by reading the second chapter. They’ll just get up and walk away, leaving that book – and that author – behind.
Pat Morrison Penumbra Publishing