Character Introductions

Last night my wife and I watched the movie (500) Days of Summer, and it is taking all of my willpower not to immediately add it to my list of all-time favorites. I like to let movies simmer in my mind and watch them a couple of times before taking that step, but wow–I really, really loved it.

In short, it’s a story about what happens when she’s the The One for you but you’re not The One for her. A narrator opens the film with a quick description of the two leads, and describes the woman, Summer, with three short, brilliant sentences: “Since the disintegration of her parent’s marriage she’d only loved two things. The first was her long dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and not feel a thing.” That introduction tells you everything about her character: wounded by love, thrilled by life, and all too ready to destroy the attachments to that life before they wound her again. It’s beautiful and sad and a brilliant set-up for the story we’re about to watch.

Tom and Summer

This really got me thinking about character introductions, and the ones that have really impressed me over the years. Another movie filled with amazing introductions is The Silence of the Lambs, beginning with the very first shot of Clarice Starling, sweaty and haggard, running through a forest. At this point we have no idea what she’s running from, or why, and as she comes up the hill toward the camera we get a kind of unexplained dread–this is a woman who will spend the movie desperate, confused, and small.

Clarice Starling

But the act of running, instead of screaming or crying, also serves to reinforce her strength–this is a woman who will spend the movie moving forward, facing all obstacles and never giving up. After a few moments we learn why she’s running: she’s taking a physical test, essentially an obstacle course, for the FBI. After the test she steps into an elevator, where she is surrounded by men: all bigger, taller, and very masculine. This introduces in a single shot Clarice’s quest to excel in a position usually reserved for men–a key part of the movie’s central theme of gender-switching. We haven’t had a single line of dialogue, and yet we already know who Clarice is, what she’s like, what she’s going to face, and what the movie is about. It’s an incredible opening.

Hannibal Lecter’s introduction is one of the most famous in movie history. Before we get to see him, we walk with the chief psychiatrist as he explains to Clarice all of the horrible things Lecter is capable of. He shows her a picture of a mauled nurse (we don’t get to see it) demonstrating Lecter’s ferocity, stating that he did that to the nurse in just a matter of seconds, an adding the key detail that “his pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”

Hannibal Lecter

Then he starts to lead Clarice down a series of staircases and through a series of doors, one after another, locks and clicking and bolts slamming, each one reinforcing the danger Lecter represents. The psychiatrist enumerates a list of strict, almost ridiculous security measures: don’t get close to the glass, don’t give him anything but soft paper, don’t accept anything he tries to give you. In a ingenious twist on “Show, don’t tell,” the movie shows us not what Lecter has done but what the characters have to do in order to protect themselves from in. How could getting close to the glass possibly be dangerous? How could he hurt you through a solid sheet of unbreakable glass? We don’t know, and the movie never tells us, but the implied danger makes him all the more terrifying as our imagination fills in the gaps.

The third major character of the story is Buffalo Bill, the killer Clarice is hunting, who is introduced to us in the simplest way of all: through someone else’s story. We see a blond woman come home to her apartment late at night, where she sees a man with a broken arm trying to load a chair into a van. She offers to help, get’s stuck in the van, and he knocks her unconscious with his fake cast. Not only is this a direct reference to Ted Bundy (who used a similar method to trap some of his victims), but it is a succinct lesson in how the world sees Buffalo Bill: not as a killer, but as a bland, almost faceless bystander, weak and helpless. He is impossible to catch because he is impossible to recognize, and the things we think we know about him are lies.

Buffalo Bill

Not every character in every story needs an introduction as sophisticated as these, but good introductions are wonderful ways to tell us important things about a character without just blurting them out. Where is the character the first time we see her? What is she doing, and why? What do other people think of her? Strong introductions go a long way toward turning a good story into a great one.

10 Responses to “Character Introductions”

  1. T.J. says:

    Dan, thanks for the thoughts/insights. Makes me see a lot of where my story is lacking.

  2. PJ says:

    One thing about character introductions that always annoyed me was the “James Bond” syndrome, where the writers would show how bad-a$$ the guy is by putting him through a needless action scene – even though it has no bearing on the story.

    Casino Royale sorta did this too, but at least it established some of Bond’s history as well as his bad-a$$ery. Points for effort there.

  3. Jaleta Clegg says:

    Lots of food for thought here. The big question is how to translate those marvelous images in our minds into words on paper. Somehow what I want to put down never quite has the same impact as what I see in my head. I guess I need more practice. Very insightful article.

  4. Arlene says:

    Still haven’t seen “Silence of the Lambs”. I don’t think I ever will.

    I’m with T.J. for sure on this one, but I don’t think I’ll be changing anything just yet. I have to get to the end of my story to have a better idea of how the introductions should play out.

  5. PJ, James Bond is not about showing how bad-ass the hero is, but to get the movie started with a bang to immediately draw in the audience. Specifically with action movies, you can’t really start quietly, or else the audience gets bored.

  6. Rachel Whitaker says:

    Really enjoyed your insights into characterization, Dan. I struggle with this quite a bit, and as a result, I admire when someone manages to do it well. Your post helped me want to be more aware of the way characters (in any medium) are portrayed so I can take the best and worst methods and apply or avoid them in my own writing.

  7. PJ says:

    Pangoria, you’re right. Drawing the audience in is an important part of an action movie, and shouldn’t be ignored. But there are ways to do that *and* introduce the character properly *and* move the story forward.

    True Lies (which is another spy movie) did this pretty well. A far off mission introduces the main character and his team, sets up the plot and introduces a femme fatale, too – all with lots of guns and explosions. The opening scenes of The Rock set up the main bad guy, showing how far he’ll go to accompish his objective (even leaving one of his own behind). And by the way, the scene shows how dangerous the bioweapon they stole is.

    Don’t get me wrong, the Bond movies are fun to watch and I get a kick out of them. But my main gripe is that you can take out the opening action scene and it wouldn’t affect the story in any way (at least for the Pierce Brosnan movies – I can’t speak for the earlier ones).

  8. PJ says:

    Addendum to The Rock: the main bad guy also has his men use non-lethal weapons on the US soldiers, showing just how far he’s NOT willing to go.

  9. PJ, good points as well. I always thought that the Bond movies were designed to show how he never stops, and is always in some mission or another.

    It depends mostly on what your goal for the story is, and whether you need to condense the story or expand it more.

    For example, the opening credit sequence to the movie Watchmen, to me is an amazing way of showing the history of that world leading up to where the story starts.

  10. PJ says:

    Absolutely! And Lord of the Rings, too!

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