When a falcon chick hatches, it bonds with its caretaker. In nature, it bonds with the parent falcons. Some falconers prefer parent-raised falcons, but others prefer hawks who have imprinted upon the falconer, so they make sure the first thing the little chick sees when it opens its eyes is the smiling falconer, food in hand.
Readers are like falcon chicks. When we open our eyes in the new world of a novel, we imprint on the first POV character we meet. I do, anyway, and many readers I know do, too: we bond with the first character we meet, and we expect the story to stick with them. If it turns out we bonded with a shill, a throwaway prologue character who never appears again in the book, or with some secondary character whose purpose was to somehow ease me into the world or plot, then I feel cheated. It makes me peevish. Often, I’ll ditch the book right there, as I did with Saberhagen’s immortal swords tome, and Guy Gabriel Kay’sTigana (I know! It’s supposed to be magnificent! I should have skipped the prologue!).
The only way I can explain my reaction to this misplaced imprinting is that the bonding state of my mind at the beginning of a novel is a vulnerable state of receptiveness and trust; it doesn’t last long, and once it’s imprinted on someone/something, it’s done. Any further imprinting is forced and artificial and therefore uncomfortable and second rate.
My Lesson? Start the Story with my Main Character
I enjoy the watching the literary gymnastics of a story featuring numerous POV characters. Some writers like George R.R. Martin in A Game of Thrones, swap POVs every chapter, and it is truly impossible to tell who the main character is. This is compounded by his willingness to kill off literally any of the twelve main characters he’s created. He’s a master. He can do that. And when he does, he bends the genre and the realm of what readers expect and can handle. Maybe someday that kind of head-hopping will be standard.
As a general rule, however, it’s still best for the rest of us to start with our main POV character in the first chapter, so readers imprint on him or her immediately. Most readers expect that, and to break custom with that can be disorienting.
I used to start one of my novels with a secondary character POV episode that I thought was a fun way to set the world and tone before the main character entered the story. Readers convinced me to move that passage to a later chapter when they were already grounded in their main character POV.
It’s also interesting to note that when a person scans the first pages of a book in a bookstore or on Amazon, part of what they are doing is assessing whether the main character is someone whose head they want to be in for the rest of the book. Having that character up front and center is part of their expectation, and part of what sells the book.