Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Character Introductions

Okay, as I continue to ease in to talking about character!

Again, the reason I am being delicate about this, when obviously I don’t use kid gloves when I’m expounding about structure, is that I have this sense that EVERY real writer already has their own process for creating character, or I’d even say calling character, because that’s more what it seems like to me: you create an inviting space for characters to come, and hope to God they show up. And I don’t ever want to do or say anything that might screw that process up for anyone.

My beloved Mystery Man on Film has a fabulous post compiling what great writers have said about creating character, and you should read through that now.

Do you notice how many of them say you can’t design character? I mean, who am I to argue with that lineup of writers, after all?

All right, but now that I’ve disclaimed myself into the ground…

There are tricks that authors can take from filmmaking to help with character.

Today’s example is the CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

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I’ve been breaking down HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE for the online class I’m teaching and that movie is superb for this character technique. Every major character has a fantastic character introduction.

Character introductions are painstakingly developed by screenwriters because the making of a movie (at least in the past) almost always hinges on attachments – that is, attracting a star big enough to “open” the movie – that is, bring in enough box office on the opening weekend to earn back production costs.

When you have an actor like that, the studio will finance the movie.

(Okay, now we could go into the fact that lately studios are less and less willing to rely on stars to open movies and why, but this isn’t an article on film financing, it’s an article on character).

And since the character introduction is the first thing an actor will read ain the script, and may be the one thing that makes him or her decide to keep reading, that character introduction may be your one shot at the actor who will make your film or consign it to that grim warehouse (one of many grim warehouses) where scripts with no attachments end up.

Actors don’t always read the whole script. I am absolutely sure that all your favorite actors do. And there are actors who convince great directors to sign onto scripts that they love. There are actors who love a script so much that they produce it themselves, without even taking a role in it, to get it made.

Still, and I know you may find this hard to believe - some actors only flip through the script reading all their own lines, and make the determination of whether or not they will play a part from that.

And so no matter how brilliant the rest of your script is, an irresistible character introduction may be your one shot at getting an actor who can get your movie made.

But what does all this have to do with writing novels, you ask?

Well, what I’m saying is that even as a novelist, it doesn’t hurt to think of character in terms of casting. I know some of you design characters (in novels as well as scripts) with actors in mind. I certainly do. You may start writing a scene imagining a certain actor playing the role of the character you have in mind, and use that actor’s voice. I do this, not all the time, but fairly often. I can feel myself writing for an actor, and imagining an actor saying the lines – but then ALWAYS, at a certain point, the character just takes over. Everything I do with character until that point is just treading water until the REAL character shows up.

Then I forget all about actors and creating and designing - I’m really just following the character around taking dictation.

But – until that point, imagining an actor, and writing for that actor, can be a real help in attracting that mysterious being called character.

(I would be worried about sounding completely psychotic at this point except that I’m talking to a bunch of writers and I KNOW YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.)

So, if you’re willing to buy into this metaphor I’m working on, that characters are much like actors, and you have to design parts that will attract them to your story and convince them to take on the role…

A really good way to do this is to create an irresistible CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

Let’s take a look at some great ones.

- Rita Hayworth throwing back her hair in GILDA.

- Dustin Hoffman on stage playing a tomato in TOOTSIE (and then the equally classic introduction of “Dorothy”, struggling to walk down a crowded NY street in high heels and power suit.)

Hoffman as a tomato tells us everything about his character, both his desires and problems: we see the passion he has for acting, the fact that he’s not exactly living up to his potential, and how extremely intractable he has, basically unemployable. It’s also a sly little joke that he’s playing a “tomato” – a derogatory word for a woman.

- Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I want a BIG one.” And freeze frame on that handspan… fabulous, funny, sexy introduction. (That big, huh? Mmm.)

This intro also tells us something about George Bailey’s outer DESIRE line – he wants to do big things, build big things, everything big. In fact, the story will be about how all the LITTLE things George does in his life will add up to something more than simply big, but truly enormous.

- Mary Poppins floating down from the sky holding on to that umbrella.

- Katharine Hepburn in PHILADELPHIA STORY, throwing open the window shutters on a gorgeous day and exclaiming, “Good going, God!”

- And okay, let’s just look at HARRY POTTER, since I have it on the brain.

- Dumbledore: an elderly, medieval looking wizard regally walks down a modern street, using some flashlight-like device to kind of vacuum the lights from the streetlamps into this tool.

- MacGonegal: A cat on a porch meows at Dumbledore, then the shadow of the moving cat turns into the shadow of a witch in pointed hat, and MacGonegal walks regally into frame.

Hagrid: first appears as a glowing light in the sky, very conscious reference to Glinda’s magical appearance in the glowing bubble in THE WIZARD OF OZ (and Hagrid will be the fairy godmother to Harry). Then the Wizard of Oz reference has a humorous twist – Hagrid descends not in a shimmering bubble, but on a Harley.

But the introduction of Hagrid is more than humorous – it tells us a lot about the character. First, the debate that Dumbledore and MacGonegal have over whether Hagrid should have been trusted with the baby tells us a lot about this character we’re about to meet. And when we see Hagrid carrying the baby this hulking giant is as tender as a mother.

Harry Potter: we see him first as a baby in swaddling clothes, left on a doorstep (like every fairy tale changeling and also Moses in the bulrushes, the child who grows up to be the leader of his people), while the witch and the wizard talk about how important he’s going to be - then the scar on the baby’s forehead is match cut to the scar on 11-year old Harry’s forehead to pass time and introduce Harry again.

Again, note that this introduction of Harry tells us a lot about this character – in pure exposition and also by using the visual, archetypal references to Moses – and, let’s face it, the baby Jesus with the three kings (wizards and witch).

Olivander, the wand master: John Hurt slides into frame on a ladder, slyly glowing as only John Hurt can glow.

Nearly Headless Nick: pops his head right through the dinner table.

And a character introduction doesn’t have to be just a moment, either. As I said in another post, one of the best character introductions I’ve seen in a long time was the long build-up of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character in VICKI CHRISTINA BARCELONA. With all of that anticipation and build-up, an actor is going to pull out all the stops when she finally blazes onto the screen, and Penelope totally did. That role was written to demand an Oscar-worthy performance, and she delivered.

Of course, having actors like all of the above has more than a little to do with the power of those introductions – obviously we’re talking about screen royalty here.

But those introductions were also specifically designed to be worthy of those stars.

So add character introductions to your list of things to watch for when you look at movies and read books. Note the great ones. The more you become aware of how other storytellers handle this, the better you will be at writing them yourself, for your own characters.

You know the question by now. What are YOUR favorite examples of character introductions?

- Alex


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Gayle Carline said...

Here's where I'm going to get into trouble, since I'm not certain if I remember the exact entrances of the leads in my favorite movies. I don't remember Katherine Hepburn at the window in The Philadelphia Story - I remember her first scene as standing in the doorway, breaking Cary Grant's golf club over her leg. That, and his response, are a perfect way to show their relationship without a word.

In Casablanca, my first recollection of Rick is his hands, signing a check. It would be a good shot, I think, to set up Rick as the heartless businessman, the paper pusher. But is that how the scene happens?

I do remember the opening of Born Yesterday; we see Billie Holliday step out of a car, then fuss, in a bored way, with a stack of furs on her luggage. She is dripping with money - jewelry, clothes, fur - as she walks through the penthouse. We think she is deciding whether it's worthy of her stay... and then she opens that mouth and shatters our preconceptions. I love that scene.

I have many other favorite movies, but I'm afraid to try to discuss the character introductions without popping the DVDs in to remind me how they started!

Gayle Carline

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Indiana Jones in Raiders

Classic, cliffhanger serial intro.

A hand. A hand and a map. A hand and a bullwhip. Still no words from this guy who is a man of action, not words. Then he's a backlit shadow outline.

All the words in the first sequence are about death:

"If they knew we were here, they would have killed us already."
"cashed it in"
"Nobody has come out of there alive."

But it's not Indy who is going to die. Not the guy with the bullwhip. What actor could resist being a character whose first action is to whip a gun out of another guy's hand?

And then he's not afraid of spiders, boobytraps, swinging over chasms.

But there at the end of that sequence, waits the snake.

Man, oh man.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Gayle - we do first see Kate in the montage breaking the golf club over her knee. So she has TWO great intros in that film!

I haven't seen BORN YESTERDAY in forever - really have to! Judy Holilday, though. ;)

Yeah, obviously I'm guessing on some of those intros, too, but still - I think everyone's getting our points!

Gayle Carline said...

Okay, so now, how do we translate this to what we read/write? As readers, we can linger with a book, take time to know the protagonist. But as writers, should we be writing our first scene to establish that perfect snapshot, or do we keep the main character a bit of a mystery? As a reader, do I want to know the m.c. immediately so I can identify with them on their journey, or do I want to get to know them along the way?

Anonymous said...

David, you're a man after my own heart! Great analysis! A classic intro for a classic character.

Bobby Mangahas said...

I wouldn't call it one of THE great character intros, but I like it anyway. In BACK TO THE FUTURE, you get a (I think) 3/4 quarter shot and a little glint off a guitar pick just before Marty plays a chord and is blown back by the noise from the amplifier. When he takes off his sunglasses, you get your first good look at him.

Jake Nantz said...

Hey Alex!
The moment I read the title of this post, I knew A) what it would be about, and B) what and who I was going to talk about. I'll give you a character introduction that could have been done SO much better, but the story wouldn't have allowed for it. Think of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace...

Let's face it, the coolest character in that film was the sith apprentice, Darth Maul. And EASILY the best intro shot of him was near the end, when the jedi are helping Queen Amidalla storm the Viceroy's stronghold. They approach a sliding blast door, and as it opens we think we'll see a host of guards/soldiers.

Nope, just the black hood with the black-and-red face and those yellow eyes glaring from beneath it. And then he breaks out the double-sided lightsaber. Like a lightstaff. Admit it. That was freakin' cool.

But, it's at the end of the story, and he has to chase/track them before that, so he gets some lame introduction by the teleconferenced version of Darth Sidious, like he's on some black and white camera.


Lucas did a better job of introducing that ridiculous Jar-Jar character (bumbling idiot is introduced as running from a stampede and latching onto Qui-gon, thus creating a life-debt) than he does the only villain in the six-part series who is close to being as interesting as Vader. What a sham.

But how about the creature's intro in ALIEN. The egg room, the facehugger attaching to Kane, then the little guy bursting through Kane's chest at dinner. I would also bring up each of the marines in ALIENS...the Hudson/Vasquez wordplay especially:
Hudson (male)-"Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?"
Vasquez (female)-"No. Have you?"

BT said...

Highlander is full of great character intros - Connor (Lambert) in Madison Square Gardens watching the wrestling, the flash of bulbs, the ruckus of the crowd, the jostling, and Connor a sea of calm in the middle of it.

Ramirez (Connery) on his fine white horse interrupting a moment of pleasure for our hero. The weather closes in, and Ramirez finishes with "we are the same MacLeod, we are brothers".

The Kurgan (Brown) on a black stallion a top the mountain dressed in skull helmet with lightning going off behind him - "remember our agreement Murdoch, the boy is mine" and he takes the whole movie to try and make that comment come true.

Kate (Imrie) dressing Connor for a date - "people are asking about you. What should I tell them?" (Connor) "Tell them I'm immortal" Sudden flashback to WWII and Connor finding a little girl who is the sole survivor of a massacre - (Connor) "Come with me. I'm alone, like you."

There are lots more in this movie from both main characters and the smaller ones.

Matunus (Malcolm) has a very small part, but seeing him driving in his red Trans-Am with an assortment of weapons on the passenger seat tells us all sorts about who he is without saying a word. The soundtrack in the background of Queen singing Hammer to Fall just seals what he is and what is about to go down.

I could go on and on, but I think I already have...

Anonymous said...

How to translate this technique to a book is the question! We had this discussion on Murderati, I think, that that opening line that so many authors seem to agonize over (I don't!) is especially important in a first-person story, because that first line is your intro to the main character. But I think the actions and visuals of characters are equally important - where you place your character when the audience first sees her or him, what she's doing and thinking, who she's looking at.

Let's face it, there are infinite ways to convey interesting information about a character. The trick is to start noticing how authors do it, and why you respond to it.

Anonymous said...

RJ, I laughed out loud at your description of that intro. Makes me want to see the movie again. Even more.

Anonymous said...

Hah, great examples (and anti-example), Jake and BT!
It's such a relief to post about something that everyone gets instantly, after the whole meta-structure struggle! ;)

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I've made over a dozen copies of my WIP, named each one for a character, and then edited each copy down to only those scenes that include or reference that character.

You can bet I'll be boosting their introductions.

Anonymous said...

I think openings and introductions have become a pass/fail test for readers trolling the stacks. We dip into books expecting those first few lines, and then the first pages, to be exceptional. And rightly so: If you can't surprise me on the first date, and take my breath away with the first kiss, then we're in for a dull marriage, yes?

Could be the most eye-catching movie openers are in the Bond flicks. The best of these have character, action and a set-up for the film. But I certainly agree with the other comments. Raiders, Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon have some of the best getting-to-know-you scenes of all time.

Finally, what you said about creating a great part to attract strong characters to the story, well now, that's intriguing. I've never thought of it that way, even though I've always felt that setting shapes character, and plot is born from it. You just explained the "why" behind something I held true by intuition. Now, rather than just responding to instinct, I can make strong choices by design. What a wonderful and unexpected gift--thank you!

Anonymous said...

What about when the Phantom makes his entrance in Phantom of the Opera?

After reading this post, I can definitely do some work on my character introductions. Thanks for the reminders.

By the way...I skipped commenting on the whole Meta-Structure post. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around that one. :-)

Brian G Ross said...

You really do have a good insight into this kinda stuff, Alexandra.

The introduction of Jaws is a classic moment. All that build-up, the myths, the memories. We know this fish is a monster before we have seen it.

And then...


Anonymous said...

Stephen, breaking your MS down by character is a terrific way to develop all your characters. I've done that myself in the past and I think I'll just take your lead and do it again in my next pass of my own WIP - it's just an invaluable thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you made my day. Sometimes I'm afraid my analogies will send people screaming into the night.

I agree 100% about setting shaping character. Ideally place and setting (and weather, and colors, and season) are all an externalization of inner character.

That's why so many stories show the main character in a certain place to begin with and RETURN to the same place in the resolution (usually after the final battle) - so we can see the character's growth and a whole new relationship with that place - which will often LOOK very different from what it did in the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the meta-structure thing, Kristine. Eventually I think that light will start going on for people, or I'll figure out a perfect way to explain it.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember the character intro to the Phantom from the play, only that I pretty much held my breath every time he was on stage.

You remind me I haven't seen the movie, yet, though, which is kind of appalling. I've had it forever.

Anonymous said...

Brian, you are so right about JAWS - in fact, that's a terrific movie to look at for buildup of a horrific opponent. The pictures in the book that Brody looks at - not primally disturbing, but great foreshadowing. And having Hooper talk about "the perfect killing machine"... and that shot of the boat sailing off literally through the gaping jaws of the shark mouth Quint has in his fishing shack.


Holly Y said...

1. The introduction of Madmartigan in the movie Willow was great. He's a filthy criminal left to starve in a hanging cage. Clearly, as Megosh says, "Someone put him there for a reason." Interesting that we never find out what the reason is.

2. I just finished The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham. It opens with Kitty crying out in fear because she hears the door being tried. A man is with her. She's terrified. Who could it be? She whispers, "Walter." In those opening 8 lines we know this woman is with a man who is not her husband, she's probably in China or India, and she is afraid of her husband. LOTS of info, deftly drawn, that completely drew me in.

Great tool for thinking about character. Thanks!

Jennifer Oberth said...

Great post! I love it.

I will add Jack Sparrow's intro - if I remember it correctly.

Here's this great pirate and he's regal, standing with his hand over his eyes, peering into the distance and you can picture his majestic pirate ship and then...he steps onto the dock just in time, before going down with his ship. That was so juxtaposed that I literally did a double take and thought I saw that wrong.

And it sets up what we'll get and expect from that character for the rest of the series.

Again, a great post!