Screenwriting Basics: Character and Location Intros

Many scripts I read don’t bother to establish location or introduce their characters appropriately. Do not forget that when I pick up your script, I’ve never been introduced to your screenplay world before. I have no idea if your script takes place in New Orleans or Boston, in today’s world or in 2055. I have no idea if your character “Samalo” is a man or a woman. You need to tell me.

Never assume that if you don’t write a location, the reader will assume your script takes place in Vancouver, or Los Angeles, or Hong Kong. If you don’t clearly establish that the script takes place in Hong Kong, and people suddenly start speaking Cantonese, that will be confusing to the reader. Any point of confusion for the reader is a point of annoyance, and all the more so within the first 15 pages. Any time I have to stop the read to turn back and look something up is a loss for you, because it means that not only have I not been thoroughly sucked into your world, I don’t even understand it.

As they say, god is in the details. The more evocatively specific you can be in both your location and character descriptions, the more the reader will get from it. I am going to be spending at least forty minutes with your screenplay world when I read your script, so take the time to establish that world as to justify my time. Make your characters sparkle. Make them feel real. Set them in an interesting world that pops. Otherwise, I feel like I’m spending an hour of my time with a paper doll that I could have drawn better – and would have had more fun with – myself.

Location
I am always shocked when I read a script and the location is not announced up front. Without location, not only is the writer not taking advantage of specific details within any given community (i.e., probably hasn’t done their research), but also they’re not thinking that deeply or comprehensively about character. For example, a female protagonist in New Orleans, having survived Hurricane Katrina, would have a very specific world view. Or, say, an anorexic woman in Los Angeles with breast implants would experience the world very differently that a women in Vermont living on a farm who needs to carry fire wood inside on a daily basis to survive.

Weigh very carefully how the location not only informs character and world view, but how the location can positively affect the tone you’re trying to create. If I am introduced to a character in the middle of a snowstorm in Siberia, that will set a very different tone than meeting a character who’s suffering sunstroke at the beach. Use the nuance of the location and its climate to create depth and reality within your screenplay world.

Period
If you are writing a period piece that takes place outside the normal today world, then this must also be established very clearly at the beginning of your script. If you are writing a historical script, then be thorough in the creation of that world: use a concrete visual scene or anecdote to introduce us to that period, that time, and how people live there. Highlight the differences in a way that is relevant to the characters in that story. Make sure the characters speak in a way that is historically accurate for that time period.

Years ago, a read a script that was not a satire wherein Leonardo da Vinci, in Florence in the 1470s, was parachuting around with automatic machine guns, screaming, “Lock and load!” In the 1470s, they were not parachuting with automatic weapons. When this was pointed out to the writer, I don’t think he had thought about that point.
I recently read a futuristic screenplay set in space, on another planet within another galaxy, but yet most of the characters behaved exactly like normal humans that I would meet here on today’s earth. The writer did introduce some limited elements of advanced technology that were mildly interesting – but then never bothered to introduce or explain them well enough so they became resonant. I was never able to buy into this writer’s version of “reality” because he was trying to sell me something that was fundamentally not making sense. People on another planet unrelated to earth would probably dress differently, speak differently, use unique technology – so why not play up these differences? If you don’t want to do the work to create an alternate world, then don’t write about one! Simply avoid that problem by setting your script on this world but in the future. Thus, many aspects of the world would likely be very similar – if not the same – but would just reflect a new trend of that time. Don’t create more problems for yourself – keep things easy and logical.

Introduce your characters!
Name, age and clothing are all fine, but a better introduction is when we meet a character in a setting that really exposes something true about their character. For me personally, I appreciate details. You must, must, must give me enough about the major players to sustain me for the read.

When I meet a major character (someone who will appear throughout the script), I need four solid introductory lines that give me a very clear sense of the spirit of that individual. This solid introduction is for two reasons: a proper introduction allows me to know that I should pay attention, that this is a major player in the script; and secondly I will be getting to know and hopefully feel invested in the journey of this character.

When I read those lines, I should feel as though we were having a coffee, and you passed me a photograph of that person. Ideally, I want to get a clear image of the person in my mind’s eye – but, in screenplay, the imagination’s image is captured more thoroughly with evocative associations rather than literal minutiae. That is why it is more important to introduce us to your character in a scene that exposes character rather than just giving me an age or clothing style.

I could care less that your protagonist is “Karen, 20s.” First of all, if you introduce a major role in your script like this, how am I supposed to know that this is a main character (i.e., someone to pay attention to), as opposed to the clerk who will show up for one page only? Personally, I am annoyed by the use of sweeping age ranges. There’s a huge difference in life between the ages of 22 and 28. A 22 year old is a totally different human being in terms of life experience than a 28 year old. So, know your character well enough to say that she’s 22, and not 28. I realize that writers oftentimes do that for casting purposes – they don’t want to limit the scope of which actress might play that role. However, as far as I’m concerned as a reader, I am looking for the quality of writing, and quality comes with knowing your characters well enough to know whether or not they’re 22 or 28. You can worry about casting if and when your project gets that far.

Also, I don’t really give a rat’s ass if “Karen, 20s, is wearing sexy, skinny-leg jeans.” Okay, I get it, Karen is a skinny, hot actress type. That tells me absolutely nothing about her character, other than an actress will ultimately play this part. Duh. And neither do khakis, a rumpled shirt, or cargo pants. Clothing is a very superficial and base way of describing a character. Go deeper than that.

Think of a scene within a place that would be fundamental to your character’s identity and introduce them there, so that we’re getting the behavior and the location bundled in a neat little package. If you can, literally imagine if you could pass the reader a photograph of your character that would sum them up, how would you want the reader to meet that individual? First impressions are everything. In many cases, the first impression of your protagonist is sort of the do-or-die in terms of connection with the reader.

For example, if your character is a compulsive gambler, and this is a central issue to the script – how he’s going to overcome this addiction and its fallout – then let us meet your character in a fantastic high-stakes gambling scene. Learning that this character is a gambler tells me that he likely is very competitive, is a risk taker, willing to risk the important things in his life (family, money, stability) for a rush, to feed his addiction. This character has dramatic stakes associated with his lifestyle, which is interesting.

If you’re writing about a charming, fast-talking mom who has everything in life going against her, then let us meet her trying to charm her way into a job, get rejected, and then when she leaves the job immediately gets into a huge car accident that wasn’t her fault. We understand she’s down on her luck but trying hard and very likeable. We want her to succeed.

If you’re writing about a soft-hearted hit man with a moral code, let us meet him on a gruesome kill – but yet he spares the wife and daughter with a wink and a smile, and charms them so we understand they’ll never tell anyone what they saw. That tells me worlds more about this character than the fact that he may or may not have been “20s, wearing cargo pants.”

Naming Conventions
There is a specific reason why you’re not supposed to name characters with the same beginning letter (Alex, Andy, etc.).  When I was in film school, I sort of laughed this off as Hollywood indulgence. Now that I’m reading a lot, I understand why.

If I read a script, and Andy and Alex are friends, and both are introduced as “30s” without any specific details that make them incredibly unique, and if they talk alike (i.e., the dialogue is not unique), then in reading the script, I will confuse these two characters. Confusing your characters is very bad from a reader’s perspective.

Now, if Andy is introduced as the thinner hot friend (Hugh Jackman), and Alex is introduced as the heavier, funnier, less “hot” friend (Jack Black), then I would take a note and try to remember the differences. However, better yet, why not make their names unique as well? Why not call them Andrew and Jack, or Jim and Robert?

Variation not only in first letter but also in length is helpful. Readers oftentimes read “down the page,” which means at some point, when your overwritten action lines become boring and indulgent, we’ll start reading the dialogue only just to skim through the plot and see what happens with the story. This is true especially in competition reading, because we have a sense within the first 10-15 pages if the material is up to par for a consider or recommend. If not, then it is a matter of getting through it just to be sure it’s not a consider. In that case, I would pretty much just read down the page, and so the easier you can make that on me, the better.

This same convention applies to names that sound alike or are anagrams (or near anagrams). I recently read a script where two supporting roles were both made up names and almost anagrams of each other (e.g., Lanet and Tenal). Both characters were introduced only with an age, “20s,” and I was not given gender or anything else that could help me to better identify these characters. Of course, it was a problem throughout the read – I was very confused. And annoyed.

Pay attention to what you name your characters and what that name implies. I just read a script wherein the male romantic lead was named “Friedrich,” but this is a German name. I am American and have never met an American named “Friedrich.” It was confusing for me why the writer would have chosen a specifically German name and yet wrote a very vanilla, bland American guy character. If you’re going to name a character Friedrich, then do so because he is either German, or first-generation German American – make it a part of the character. I actually love discovering unique names, but then it should really inform that character in a unique and relevant way.

Choose names wisely. If you’re writing a sexy woman character, don’t name her “Hildegard.” You might personally find that name totally sexy, but your average reader will not. If you’re writing a sexy male lead, don’t name him “Horatio.” The energy of the name can inform your character – as to whether they are intelligent, nerdy, smart, sexy, academic, a bully, etc. Use that to your advantage.

Also, be thoughtful about associations the reader will make with real persons and use it to your advantage. I just read a script wherein the two male leads were named Jack and Bobby. Now, I would venture the average American would have an immediate association with the Kennedys in this case. In fact, there was a Greg Berlanti show from several years ago, entitled, “Jack and Bobby.” If you don’t specifically want to evoke the Kennedys, then don’t choose those names coupled together. Don’t write about Ben and Jennifer or Brad and Angelina unless you want me to see those couples in my head. However, if one writes a male lead in a romantic comedy who is supposed to be hot and names him “Brad” (or even perhaps Brett or Brent), then we will have a peripheral association with Brad Pitt, and that could well work to your advantage.

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