Story Openings: What a Character!

John Kennedy Toole, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, taught college English at Hunter College, the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and Domincan College. The Chicago Sun Times called his character, Ignatius J. Reilly, “…a Don Quixote of the French Quarter.”

As one reads short stories and novels, it’s obvious they don’t all begin en medias res.  In the pen of a skilled writer, other options exist. The thing all well written openings have in common, though, is this: they hook readers.  

The opening we’ll look at today is rarely used because it’s so difficult to pull off successfully. However, as we shall see, it has been done well. What opening am I talking about?  The character opening.

In the character opening, readers are introduced to a character so interesting that readers want to keep reading and learning more about him or her. One of the main drawbacks of this opening is that it doesn’t immediately thrust readers into the plot.

Having said that, let me introduce you to a Pulitzer Prize winning book that used it, written by the late New Orleans author John Kennedy Toole. The book: A Confederacy of Dunces. This is a humorous novel featuring a comical character named Ignatius J. Reilly. He’s so unique and interesting readers want to follow him.

The first line of Chapter One reads thus: A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head…

Then Toole spends several paragraphs continuing his description in a comical vein.

As those of us from Mobile, Alabama claim Forrest Gump as one of our literary heroes, those from New Orleans claim Ignatius. I know this, because I lived in New Orleans for twenty-five years. Winston Groom, Forrest’s creator, was from Mobile.

A Tragic Ending

Because Mister Toole died at a young age, he never saw his novel win the Pulitzer Prize. It was rejected twice, first by Simon & Schuster and then by famed Louisiana journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. Suffering from depression, he took his own life in Biloxi, Mississippi. His mother believed in the novel and let novelist Walter Percy read it. With his help, it finally found publication. In 1981, Mister Toole’s novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

A Gentle Request

Depression is a serious illness and should always be taken seriously. As one who has suffered from it, I am speaking from experience. Please, never tell a depressed person to “snap out of it.” People suffering from depression cannot just snap out of it. Instead, pray for them and try to get them help as quickly as possible. It saddens me that Mister Toole never found the help he desperately needed.

Don’t let depression rob you of your dream, your life. If you are going through this dark tunnel, get help from those who understand, who are willing to listen, and who will guide you toward your healing.


Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces, New York: Grove Press Edition, 1980 by Thelma D. Toole.

John Kennedy Toole – Wikipedia

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