How Catch-22 introduces its protagonist perfectly in 500 words–and how you can too.

Characters are bitches. Well, at least, writing them make them way. Especially whenever you’re trying to introduce them to a reader. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the second a reader/listener/viewer is introduced to a character, an invisible timer begins, counting down the amount of time we as a writer have to create an empathetic connection between the two entities and thus drive the interest forward through an emotional investment with the audience. Every author worth his salt understands this, of course, as well as why it’s so important to introduce character before plot, or else the latter is meaningless and boring.

This failure of character introduction (in my humble opinion) found in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is why that 19th-century classic is one of the few that I hate vehemently. How can I enjoy the story when I can’t even stand Heathcliff, its protagonist?

Don’t get me wrong, I usually enjoy the anti-hero like presented in Wuthering Heights, but Brontë dragged on far too long before she formed a sense of connection between me as a reader and Heathcliff, long after my interest in the plot had dwindled and long after the effect had been grown dry.

This brings me back to what I mentioned before: the timer. In fact, it’s relatively easy to create a good character, compared to introducing them. Why, we’re surrounding by characters in our everyday life, and often, in our fictional worlds, we have the power to construct our entire universe, our entire plot, our entire cast so as to favor a particular person throughout the story. Furthermore, we can create empathetic pro/antagonists in our novels because we are emotional beings.

The harder part, therefore, of the process of a character in a literature setting is how to introduce them at their initial portrayal. How can we as authors manage to hook the reader with enough information about our protagonist so as to rattle and interest the reader without appearing too blunt and obvious with the mysteries surrounding him/her? In most of our books, we don’t have the ability to simply have a character stand up and address to the readers who they are. Such processes would be unrealistic, uncreative and boring.

So how, then, do we introduce our character? Obviously, it depends upon the genre and conflict the novel is built upon, and so there are many different ways. In some more abstract forms, writers may wish to introduce the conflict before the character, for example, though this often creates a sort of “legendary” and “apathetic” vibe towards said character, but that can sometimes be the desired effect.

Overall, writers often feel they are in a catch-22 (you see what I did there?) when it comes to introducing characters: they either sacrifice long-term mystery or intrigue of the character to allow the early story to be exciting, or invest the long-term mystery at the expense of a boring first one-hundred pages. Neither on of these scenarios are necessarily an ideal, but these two choices can often appear to be the only options.

Well, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 shows a different option.

But before I can tell you what that option is, I need (as always) to establish context and base for my position.

You see, how to introduce a character has been stuck in my mind for the past few weeks, because I’m in the midst of developing and finishing all of my players for the novel I’m working on currently, and as I begin to attempt to draw a heavy outline, I’m presented with the conundrum I just listed before.

My novel, to be keep things short, is a post-modern satirical character study involving two semi-foils as they grow contempt for each other. Each of these characters, as you may be able to guess, have intensely deep and hidden histories as well as complex insecurities that will grow and exert themselves on the physical plain as the plot grows to a climax.

So the issue of confronting character introductions is extremely prominent to me. These insecurities and histories have to remain hidden long enough to form a drive to continue through the story for the reader, but to create sympathetic establishments between author and reader, I’m going to need to open some of the mysteries of the character so as to attract the reader. The past few weeks, the following questions have been boggling my mind:

  • Is it possible to allow both of these possibilities to exist?
  • How can I assume a reader’s perspective when introducing a character?
  • How will the complexity of the plot be based upon the initial observations of said reader?

Note: I want to insert this here before I delve too deep in Heller’s novel. We all have different types of plots and characters, and it’s important to keep this context in mind when continuing to read this post. Not all of my solutions may be your solutions.

Well, some deity must have been watching over me, because this week, I happened across Joseph Heller’s satirical war novel Catch-22 for the first time. Picking it up, I found it an intensely comical book–perhaps the one of the funniest novels I have ever read, but what stunned and excited me the most was the first one-and-a-half pages, or about 500-700 words.

Yossarian: a prick in five hundred words.

I came into Catch-22 not knowing one iota of what the novel was about, who its hero was, why it was such a classic or why I’d been recommended it countless times in the past few years by fellow readers. Coming in blindly, Yossarian, the “protagonist” (which is a dangerous word in a novel with so many varied characters) is instantly mysterious, but we’ll get to that in a second.

We as a reader are able to pick up that Yossarian, a pilot in the Allied forces in World War II, is currently in the hospital indefinitely for something that “isn’t quite jaundice”. But, suddenly, 200 words into the novel, we read this:

None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone. Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed… he was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay… After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mention why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that he was going on a very dangerous mission. ‘They asked for volunteers. It’s very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I’ll write you the instant I get back.’ And he had not wrote anyone sense.

Catch-22 (pg. 7-8)

Immediately, we can make a few fair assumptions about Yossarian’s character. For one, from this first section, we can tell he’s a liar:

None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone.

Also, from the following sentences, we understand that he is lazy as well:

Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed… he was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay

Next, he makes clear that’s being this lazy and being a liar for the selfish purpose that he doesn’t want to endure the war while others do:

After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital

Oh, and did I mention Yossarrian also lies to everyone he knows, once again, selfishly, as he is making them think he is danger or soon to be dead:

Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mention why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that he was going on a very dangerous mission. ‘They asked for volunteers. It’s very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I’ll write you the instant I get back.’ And he had not wrote anyone sense.

And, in the following paragraph, we finally understand that Yossarian is fine with hurting other people if it hurting said people gives him some amount of amusement:

All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared on day, and out of every letter that passed through his hand went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letter but ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’… one time he blacked out all but the salutation ‘Dear Mary’ from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, ‘I yearn for you tragically’…

Catch-22 (pg. 8)

Yossarian seems perfectly content with ruining sweet and innocent letters sent back home from people of the army simply to amuse himself while he’s lying to stay in a hospital because he’s afraid to die.

Here’s the genius in this, if you haven’t already caught it:

Distinctly, within these two first pages of Catch-22, do we already understand Yossarian. We understand that, to put it bluntly, he sure isn’t the archetype for the ‘best ethical person ever’. In fact, he seems about one of the slothful and deceitful guys out there. Yet, this is presented to us readers in a delightful, comical way that doesn’t appear to a reader as forced at all. Nor does it

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