Today I was stood in a non-moving queue at the bank. Like any self-respecting writer in such a situation I turned my Ipod off and listened to the conversations around me. One woman, mid-twenties, went up to the cashier and was quick to say, 'Bear with me, it's my first time'.
How often do we hear those words these days? I wondered what she was talking about. Her first time in a bank? Had she been living in a cave for the past twenty years or storing her wages in the hollow gnome next to the fish pond? So much potential for a story there! No, in actual fact today was the first time she'd banked the takings for whatever business she worked for and she was nervous. Simple enough, yes, but it got me thinking about my characters and their first time doing... well, anything.
Sometimes I'm in danger of over-describing regular occurrences in my characters' lives because I feel the audience needs an explanation. My protagonist, for instance, is walking into a bar. Is it the first time she's set foot in a bar? No. Is is it the first time she's been in this bar? Again, no. I want to describe the place and show her in relation to it but for her to stand there marvelling at the decor would just be wrong. Someone seeing something for the first time makes life so much easier but it's seldom the case.
Then there's the danger of going the other way. My character has never seen a gun before. To have one suddenly pointed in her direction is going to provoke a reaction. It's a perfect opportunity to explore her character but on first approach I treated it almost like a non-event. A bit of common sense analysis told me that what I'd written was about as realistic as David Cameron's smile so I went back and looked at it again. Lily's just seen a gun for the first time!!! Wow!!!
The key is, I think, to remember your character at all times. It's tempting to focus on the reader but if your character is either gushing about the newness of something they've seen a hundred times before or nonplussed about a life-altering event you need a rethink. Forget what the reader needs, that can come later. What does your character need at this precise moment?
(Oh, and the woman in the bank had reason to worry - there was a ten pound discrepancy that had both her and the cashier tearing their hair out. Proof that first times can be interesting, however mundane they first appear!)