Designing the introduction of a primary character in your story in a manner that illuminates their core essence (or inner qualities), is worth the investment in time that it takes.
One of the factors that set aside the mundane from the attention-grabbing script, is the way a writer sets the scene and introduces their primary characters. The visual image a reader forms in their mind when they first read that scene can, not only persuade a reader to continue reading, but it could be the difference between a script being greenlit and ending up in file thirteen.
Planning is Key
To give yourself an advantage, you should carefully plan when and how each of your primary characters is going to be introduced in the screenplay before you start writing. Your strategy must be to use the scene to showcase your character in a way that the reader is unable to forget them, or confuse them with any of the other characters.
A good way to do this is to place them in a situation where they have to either react or take action. Then try to inject the scene with ambience and subtext that showcase the nature of their character. Include something that is unmistakably from the genre, for example if your film is an action film; introduce your protagonist in a scene that involves a form of action.
Use Action to your Advantage
Often a characters’ actions speak louder than words.
Here’s the action filled introduction of Trinity in the Wachowski brothers’ script for The Matrix.
Superhuman. Super action. From the beginning we instantly know that Trinity is no retiring wallflower in a period drama.
Different but demonstrating the same principle, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack introduce the character of Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club.
This scene leaves no doubt as to the character and morals of Ron.
Breaking the Rules
We should by now all know to avoid writing anything that a viewer is unable to see in a screenplay. (For example, what a character is thinking.) But the introduction of a character is an opportunity to exploit the exception to this rule – if done sparingly and succinctly. This is the one occasion in a screenplay where a writer is excused for edging towards a novelistic approach.
In the Steve Jobs screenplay, Aaron Sorkin introduces two characters using non-visual description.
Short succinct introductions filled with information, some of which is not visible, but which speak to the essence of the character, are effective shorthand that screenwriters have available to them. If used productively, no-one will question that the description is not visual.
Using Physical Attributes
Aspiring screenwriters (and some experienced ones,) tend to introduce characters by describing their physical attributes. This is frequently frowned upon, and more often than not ignored when casting. However there are two questions you can ask yourself when writing physical features into a character introduction that will help you edit yourself and improve your power of communication.
- Is this physical attribute important?
- Why is it important?
If the answer to the first question is no, drop it. The answer to the second question should point you in the direction of how you can use a physical attribute to shine light on the soul of your character.
Richard Curtis in the screenplay for Notting Hill introduces Spike like this;
Characters choices have consequences and reflect who they are. Here Curtis uses that to his advantage.
Finally when selecting the words you use in a characters introduction, look for words or phrases with “iceberg qualities”. These are words or short phrases where only a little it sticks above the surface, but what you read represents a huge mass of character information that the reader can fill in.
In Almost Famous by Cameron Crowe is brief when introducing a primary character, but the image is bright and clear.
Of course it’s up to you how many of these techniques you combine to achieve an effective introduction for your characters. In the screenplay for Flightplan, Peter Dowling introduces KYLE SHERIN by successfully merging some of the above techniques.
Note that he also adds the age of the character, something that may be inferred by the circumstances, but is usually helpful to the reader if they are going to get up to speed on who the character is quickly.
Whatever you do, remember that the introduction to primary character in your screenplay, should express the core essence of their character. This will help the reader to care about your characters, and to become immersed in the story quickly.