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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.