Introduce Your Character to the Reader

Now that we’re heading back into competition season for 2010, I am going to revisit the most important aspects of the screenplay, and in some cases I will try to link to examples of how they’re done correctly.

I just read a pile of scripts and only one of the writers bothered to introduce me to his protagonist. Name, age, job and clothes are just not enough.

It’s your job to take my hand, lead me into your imagination and say, “Monica, meet my protagonist.” And, “Protagonist, meet Monica, your reader.” If you miss either of these steps, it’s likely you may have already lost me from page 1.

As a reader, you need to remember that I am not familiar with the story that’s in your head. You need to literally introduce me to your script world. You actually need to lure me in. You need to woo me. Inasmuch, it is of paramount importance how you introduce every character in your screenplay – but most of all the protagonist.

This isn’t critical for any generic character – WAITRESS, VALET – but for ANY character with whom I am going to be spending any amount of time, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour, please introduce them in a way where I will know immediately, ‘Okay, this is a character I’m going to be spending time with, so let me figure them out and see who they are.’

It is critical that your script open in your character’s everyday normal world and that you choose an anecdote, or event, from that character’s life that SUMS UP the spirit of who that person is. I DO NOT CARE if your guy BOB is wearing khakis. I couldn’t give a shit. Bob is a management consultant? Not enough info.

I DO want to know something about the essence of Bob as a character that will inform the journey of the screenplay. Bob is a management consultant who moonlights as a custodial artist by night at an elementary school? Now, that’s getting me somewhere.

If the job is important to the character and story, then introduce me to that character working in that job. Don’t just write, “management consultant.” Put me in the office within the first few pages.

If you’re writing an action thriller and when I meet SAM, he goes to great – almost immoral – lengths to beat an opponent, this tells me a lot about who this character is.

If we meet SABRINA in a Romantic Comedy and she is a therapist counseling other women on their love woes but she herself is totally inept with men, that tells me who she is.

Think of an anecdote about your character that will clearly and concisely DEFINE for me who your protagonist is and share that with me in a fun, interesting, smart opening. Then, as the reader, I will have a clear snapshot of not only who this character is, I will have an understanding of where the character arc is likely to go, what genre we’re in, what the story world is likely to unfold.

This is the BEST way to pull me into your script from Page 1. Get me interested and involved in your protagonist. If I love him or her from page one, I will be likely to keep reading, and be interested, well into the script – even if the plotting isn’t stellar.

Read more about Screenwriting Basics: Character and Location Intros

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7 Responses to Introduce Your Character to the Reader

  1. Jeffrey B. Palmer February 23, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    Monica,

    Gotta say, this is where advice, tips, and know-how in the business of screenwriting collide head on. I’ve heard from many established Hollywood pros (seminars at CineQuest) that all they recommend is Name and Age. That’s it. I was blown away, but there you have it. No frills of costume, no elaborate descriptions of “who they are” and no anecdotes. Just Name and Age. Their theory is that the action and dialogue will dictate who they are and allow us to learn about them through the course of the script and story.

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying or agree with what “they” are saying, but it’s clear to me that screenwriting dos and don’ts is like wandering the Gray Zone.

    Cheers,
    Jeff

  2. Monica February 23, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    Hey, Jeff – I know, it’s all very confusing and everyone has a different opinion. I can only share what, for me, is the difference between a “recommend” and a “pass” as a reader.

    But action and dialogue are exactly what I’m talking about. When I say, “anecdote,” I mean open the script on a scene or sequence that captures something of the essence of the character that really teaches me who that individual is. You should open on one or two scenes that capture the essence of that character within their world before they begin their journey.

    The standard as far as actual character intro is no more than 4 lines of descriptor. I’m not implying that this is an opportunity to write a page of prose about the character. However, one well thought out scene or sequence to introduce me to your character will really help me as a reader.

    Many scripts that I read give me NO information about the protagonist other than just giving me a name, age, maybe clothing – but there is no depth, no spirit, and I read on with no feeling as to who that character is, where they’re starting from, and where they’re growing to. I like the feeling when a protagonist hits the page that it’s like someone has physically handed me a photograph of that character – and what I mean by this is that I have enough information about who that individual is that the person immediately takes shape in my mind. I should have a very clear mental picture of that protagonist before I turn the page. If I don’t, that’s a problem. I will likely stop reading.

    Honestly, if all you give me is a name and an age, and the quality of the writing isn’t dense enough to tell me who that individual is beyond this, then I will have a really hard time spending 45 minutes or more with your character when I have no idea who that character is. Once you start adding more characters on top of the protagonist, it will just get muddled – especially if you introduce subsequent characters with just a name and age. As a reader, I would like for main characters to be flagged for me when they hit the page. Good writing always does this.

    Tomorrow I’m posting the opening of “Erin Brockovich,” which I love and I think is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. It is a perfect introduction to Erin – we know who this woman is by page 2. I will find other examples and post them so that you better understand what I’m talking about.

  3. Shannon G December 22, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    Hi Monica,

    I’ve introduced my main character like this: TARYN BLACK, sits on the end of the couch, Taryn is in her early teens, she’s keen to be in show business, but her parents believe show business is a waste of time.

    Is this good or bad?

  4. Monica January 24, 2011 at 1:45 am #

    Shannon, what you’ve written here would be a really wonderful introductory (or early) scene for Taryn.

    One interpretation of this would be writing a scene with Taryn engaged in her passion (when you say “show business,” do you mean acting, singing, dancing… or does she want to be a TV announcer…?), doing the thing she wants to do (so, let’s say for an example, singing), rocking out in her room, feeling great, blissed out, and then the parents come home and interrupt her and are livid that she isn’t doing her homework (or working on something else that they value over her creative pursuits), chastise her, and we see her crestfallen – both because they don’t understand her, and also because they’ve snuffed her light.

    In that scene, we will understand her a lot better. That would be a better introduction to her than having her sitting on the couch.

  5. Chris May 11, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    Great information! I appreciate learning about the “how” of screenwriting.

    My question is: In the first scene where the reader meets the protagonist, the first time the reader or audience see him, he is staring, oblivious in a checkout line. He then has a small conversation with the person next to him. By the end of the conversation, the protagonist has given his name by an introduction.

    So, before the character has actually said his name so the audience can know it, what do I use for the character name for the reader?

    Can I start with “oblivious guy” and then after the introduction, use that character’s name…such as “oblivious guy is Zach, etc”

    Or from the first moment when he is staring, write something like “staring in his own world is Zach, etc”

    Take care.

  6. Monica May 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    Chris, this is a great question. Of course, one can introduce a character as “Mystery Character XXX” and then later REVEAL that this Mystery Character is really principal character BILL, at which point I’ll understand that I should have been paying attention to Bill and will be reading about Bill throughout the script. People sometimes do this, but it can read clunky. I would err on the side of being clear, so that the reader will not be confused and have to flip back a couple of pages to clarify if the OBLIVIOUS GUY and BILL are one and the same.

    I personally find this approach annoying, because, as you describe, if I were watching the film, I would see Bill as Bill – he wouldn’t be some kind of random man of mystery. It would be clear that the camera is following him and the story is on him. It is irrelevant in this case whether I know his name at this point, so why specifically choose to withhold this information from the reader? It just is a little confusing. I don’t think writing OBLIVIOUS GUY vs. BILL, 30s, completely oblivious,… creates any specific advantage for you. Unless you write it in such a clever or funny way that I am blown away.

    I would think carefully about how you balance this for the reader. I’ve read some thrillers where you don’t SEE the baddie, so then when the identity of the baddie is revealed, it is a surprise. However, in this instance, when the baddie is filmed, the identity is not revealed, so you wouldn’t be shooting BILL – you would be shooting a cloaked individual or someone whose face isn’t in frame. I think that model can work successfully, because hopefully the reveal will be a good one.

    I’d recommend you read a bunch of scripts and see how those scripts introduce their protagonists. You don’t need to have your protagonist tell someone in the opening “my name is Zach.” You can just have him go about his day. We will learn about him through his life, in the telling of your story.

    Good luck!

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