Introducing Character

One of the things that most perplexed me about screenwriting was introducing my main character. Often, I find myself intimidated by getting seemingly one shot to introduce the protagonist that is supposed to lead us for the next hundred minutes of precious time. You don’t want to get it wrong, but after reading so many scripts, you wonder whether there is actually a “wrong.”

So, of course, I went on a fact-finding mission, and this is what I found…

In the case of 50/50, sometimes it’s demeanor, and action that truly describes a character instead of physical appearance.

Introducing Oliver Fields in a somber scene in Beginners. No physical traits, just action.

We all know who Snow White is. This is her, simply introduced pre-Huntsman:

Mean Girls’ Cady Heron is described in great juxtaposition with the rest of the Plastics. (Yes, I love using Mean Girls as an example for everything.

 Here we get even more descriptive still, with Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin. It was important to predetermine what kind of 40-year-old virgin Andy was — creepy or sweet? Virgin by choice or by fate?

And then there’s Ryan Renolds, playing the hot antagon-ish in Adventureland as every straight woman’s dream and nightmare. Highly physical, but also telling about who he really is beyond his work at Adventureland

A moody description for the very visual yet simple screenplay for Lost in Translation.

Interestingly, Dee Rees does not initially establish that Alike is a butch girl in the indie darling, Pariah. However, her transition on the bus from butch girl out in the world to the femme-appearing girl that her parents expect her to be is so revealing. On top of that, there are no race descriptors (oh, you didn’t know? Black is apparently not the default race when it comes to screenwriting or Hollywood in general.). However, I think it’s also important to note that, like Beginners, Rees and Mills were writing and directing, thus giving them more control in the visual (and casting) process.

 A fantastic description of Grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine; it completely fits the mood of the movie as well.

I loved Juno, and I really liked Diablo Cody’s writing throughout the script — descriptive, and with a point of view.

Simple. Straight-forward. Inception:

A fantastic description of Sgt. Sanborn in The Hurt Locker, summed up with a succinct descriptor. You know exactly who this guy is. Interestingly, the screenwriters make an allusion to Sanborn’s race by comparing him to Muhammad Ali (he’s the black guy!), but I wonder if it’s intentional. Sanborn’s character could have been any race, really.

Let’s talk couples, shall we? Since I love (and am writing) complicated love stories, I’m taking a look at two of my favorites: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Brokeback  Mountain. Interestingly, both films use basically equal amounts of space to introduce their characters. What I find interesting about them, is that you have to almost fall in love with them, just as our protagonists fall in love with each other.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Joel – Simple, but interesting indications with action, especially paired with Jim Carrey’s performance.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Clementine – Who doesn’t love the term “zaftig?” You don’t see that often enough. Is that a way of getting past dumb people that you want to cast a shapely woman in your film? Perhaps.

Brokeback Mountain: Ennis – this is whimsical, romantic, with tons of backstory. I can’t imagine this is standard.

Brokeback Mountain: Jack – the writers even compare Jack to Ennis, interestingly 

In Conclusion: I guess it depends on the situation. Great answer, right? But the clear thing is that we understand the writer’s voice, and the style of the story, based on the character description. So, it seems, finding your own voice is the most crucial element to the process.


About Michelle

I like pie. And clapping.

Posted on March 10, 2012, in More Writing: Pilots and Screenplays and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Ah, this is the first blog about screenwriting that I’ve run across!

    Fascinating look into how various screenplays introduce their main characters. Grandpa’s (Little Miss Sunshine) and Jack (Brokeback Mountain) definitely stood out.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Great post and very enlightening. I find introducing character as one of the first hurdles to jump when starting my script. It helps to know that there are no stringent guidelines in how to do it as long as the writer’s voice is clear and the character’s essence is shown. Thx!

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