Friday, November 9, 2012

First Line Friday: Character

Back to our first line series. We’ve examined opening lines that establish setting, lines that present an axiom, lines that kick things off with dialogue, and lines where narrators break the fourth wall. Today we look at some first lines that introduce a character- like this one from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea :

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

So we’ve got a character, his habits and occupation, as well as the dilemma he faces, all in one line. Classic. Not surprisingly, some of these character openings focus on physical attributes:

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” —from George Eliot’s Middlemarch  
“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”  —from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim

Others go straight for behavioral or, pardon the pun, character attributes:

“Elmer Gantry was drunk.” —from Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” —from C. S. Lewis’s  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

And then, there are some that try to cram everything in at once:
“In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.” —from John Barth’s  The Sot-Weed Factor

I like this kind of opener, if deftly done, but I tend to get annoyed when an author pretends he is a video camera, capturing every last detail for the reader. Hemingway would get a thumbs up, and Barth, a thumbs down. What do you think?

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