Character Introductions

by Alexandra Sokoloff

George Bailey
Zoe had an excellent post on character pitches this week and I thought I'd piggy back on that today, because I've been thinking about this myself. As you all know my focus on these blogs I do on story structure is all about what tricks authors can take from filmmaking techniques to help with their own writing.
Well, there are tricks that authors can take from filmmaking to help with character.
Today’s example is the CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.
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 for novelists, 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.

And even if you don't buy my mildly psychotic analogy, you've got to admit, a great character introduction might be what entices a reader who's browsing through your book to actually buy it.

Let’s take a look at some great intros from the movies.
– 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 (see visual at top of post): “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.  

Now, in novels, I realize that we have more time to get to know a character, and the knowledge we gain about a character is more cumulative. I think in novels the main character very often is a role that we take on ourselves, and we LIVE the character more than observe them. That's what having access to a character's internal thoughts does for us.


And obviously if a book is in first person, those first few sentences from the character to the reader are especially crucial

But I still think that the first visuals we get of a character: where she is, what the weather is like, what she's wearing, what her relationship is to her surroundings – and how her external environment gives us a picture of what's going on inside her head – are all great ways to introduce us to deep character. Just the place that she's in can be thematic.  

I introduce Robin in THE HARROWING in a classroom with an unnervingly violent storm outside. She is surrounded by people but completely isolated, in her own head, and dressed all in black, and the phrases that jump out at her from the professor's lecture are ominous, even irrational. I think we get a good sense that this girl is in psychological trouble and should definitely not be left alone on campus to fend for herself, which is exactly what is about to happen.

I introduce Will in THE PRICE as alone in a freezing, silent chapel tucked away in a back corridor of a hospital. He's dressed in an expensive, power suit, but he is helpless and desperate and alone; trying to pray but completely unable to. But he also is carrying a live bunny rabbit in his suit, sneaking it into the hospital as a present for his daughter. I think – hope! all of those visuals combine to give us a layered sense of who this man is from the very beginning of the book, and make us want to find out more about him, and even maybe go on this difficult journey with him.

So that's what I'd like to talk about today. What are YOUR favorite examples of character introductions, filmic and literary? What authors have given us great character introductions, and what are they doing to achieve that effect? Authors, how do you design the introductions to your characters?

(And I hope it's as Spring for all of you today as it is for me… just GORGEOUS. Winter is definitely over. Have a great weekend!)

14 thoughts on “Character Introductions

  1. Debby Johnson

    Two of my favorite characters, one from film and the other from literature, are Keyser Soze (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) and Boo Radley (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). Both are introduced through the eyes of the characters around them with such skill, that you actually begin to believe you’ve seen them, know who they are, what they’re all about. It’s only at the end of the movie or novel that the real introduction is made, and you’re totally blown away by “reality.”

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  2. J.D. Rhoades

    The intro of Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is pretty classic. You don’t see Indy’s face until one of his faithless native guides tries to draw a gun on him from behind. Then quick as a flash the whip comes out, he yanks the gun from the guide’s hand, the guide runs off, THEN you see Indy’s grizzled, determined face. Sheer badass.

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  3. pari

    Alex,Dang! You’ve done it again. Thank you.

    I haven’t been reading fiction for a few months and we’ve only been watching Veronica Mars and Monty Python on Netflix, so I’m not much use to you for the question today.

    But what you say about first person is important. I think establishing voice as the intro is critical. We’ve talked about first lines before on Murderati and I know your dislike of obssessing about them, but the first few lines or paragraphs of a 1st person story give the reader tremendous information.

    It’s the combination of how the character expresses herself along with what she is responding to/thinking about in that initial introduction that tells the reader whether this book is for him/her.

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  4. R.J. Mangahas

    I have to agree with Dusty. Indy’s intro IS truly baddass.

    There are two intros that I liked (again not classics, but something I enjoyed) in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN. The first was Billy Crystal’s intro. At first you just see the typewriter putting out the words “The night was” then a shot to Billy Crystal’s face, deep in thought for that perfect opening sentence.

    The second was how Anne Ramsey’s character was introduced. It was actually a segue from the opening scene with Billy Crystal. The shot focuses on Oprah on the TV and when the camera goes wide again, we are in the living room of Anne Ramsey’s character, yelling “Owen!!”

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  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Great post. I really know what you mean about following your characters around taking dictation. I love it when they start to ad lib.

    For film characters, Debby already mentioned the introduction of Keyser Soze in ‘The Usual Suspects’ which is one of my favourites, but in effect the whole film is leading up to that closing-moments intro.

    The introduction of Robert de Niro’s character in ‘Righteous Kill’ is brilliant because of the way the plot twists back on itself. You think you know who he is and what’s going on from the start, but you really don’t.

    The whole ensemble cast introduction in ‘Ronin’, where everyone is suspicious of everyone else, but you learn so much about all of them from the little they do and say.

    And the introduction of George Clooney’s character, Col Thomas Devoe in ‘The Peacemaker’. (And excuse me if I’m hazy on this, because it’s a while since I watched it.) You first see him giving evidence at what is clearly a disciplinary hearing of some kind, trying to explain why he ran up a huge bar bill in a Russian nightclub and then exported a sport utility vehicle to the teenage daughter of a KGB colonel. Then in the next scene, he’s interrupting the Nicole Kidman character’s security briefing with impertinent, but pertinent remarks.

    But, to me as an author, how you introduce your main character(s) is vital. What they do in those opening pages of the book defines them, and sets the tone of their engagement with the reader for the rest of the ride.

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  6. Allison Brennan

    Darth Vader in Star Wars. The fear on the faces of the rebels defending the ship is priceless, before the stormtroopers come in and kill them all. The deep, mechanical breathing. The man in black in a ship of all white, stepping in after the deck is secured.

    The opening of ODD THOMAS, which is in first person, instantly draws the reader in. Not because of anything brilliant, but because the voice of the narrator is so compelling in trying to prove that he is nobody important that you know, before you find out, that he’s anything but nobody. But most people instantly relate to the narrator because most of us have never stood out in any way, shape or form, so even though he’s dry and humble, he also sucks you in. You have to find out what his story is. Even though he’s just “talking” to the reader in a pseudo-memoir. I think first person is all about voice, period. At least at the beginning.

    Andy in the SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Even when convicted of murder he maintained his composure, confident in his innocence. You knew there was something special about him. Morgan Freeman’s narration had a lot to do with the set-up of the film and Andy’s story as seen through Freeman’s eyes.

    Great blog. This is something I struggle with because I know the first chapter is crucial. I just re-wrote chapter one of my next book because I had introduced my heroine and she turned into a bitch. It wasn’t any one thing–but I realize the opening needed to be in her POV and once I switched it and re-worked it a bit–backing up about ten minutes in the story–she did a 180.

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  7. Jake Nantz

    Alex, I feel like a complete idiot. I gave you my “anti-“intro on your blog, and completely forgot a very recent filmic intro that conveys EVERYTHING you need to know about the character:PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN’s “Captain” Jack Sparrow.

    We start out seeing him standing astride the mast, wind in his hair, beautiful horizon behind him. We know just by looking at him that he’s a badass.

    Then, we see that the mast is the only thing left above water and it’s sinking steadily, to the point where he is just able to step off of it onto the dock, which tells us there’s some whimsy about him.

    Or perhaps each character in Disney’s Three Musketeers:–Cardinal Richelieu is introduced riding in on a dragon-prowed boat on an underground river with flaming torches everywhere, and then he orders the killing of a prisoner despite being a “man of the cloth.”–D’Artagnan is introduced in a duel with Gerard, and proceeds to escape and get into duels with all 3 of the musketeers.–Athos is at what remains of Musketeer HQ, mourning the smoldering remains of the musketeer banner.–Porthos is the unfortunate recipient of a spilled drink while D’Artagnan is trying to avoid Gerard’s brothers. We know he’s a jokester/liar when he claims the now-ruined sash was a gift from the Queen of America, with whom he’s on very good terms.–Aramis is teaching a young woman the Bible, then she kisses him. When he finds out she’s married (husband at door) he says they must pray for their sins. Door opens, musket fires and he changes to, “On second thought, God’s often busy,” and leaps out the window, landing on D’Artagnan.

    I gotta tell you, this is my favorite of all the exercises you’ve given us so far, Alex. I will definitely begin focusing more on this as I continure to write.

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  8. joylene

    Great post, Alexandra. I envisioned Cheryl Ladd at 38 when I first started Valerie McCormick’s story in Dead Witness. I introduced her to the world as she’s strolling through a deserted marina. She’s feeling guilty for accepting the trip to Seattle as a prize, rather the money. Hence, she’s wasting valuable time scouting for a boat her husband’s client is interested in, when she should be indulging in some Valerie-alone-time.

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  9. Cornelia Read

    What a wonderful post, Alex!

    I just re-read GONE WITH THE WIND this week, and Margaret Mitchell sure knows how to introduce characters (as did Sidney Howard et al, in the screenplay version). “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

    I’ve been struggling with the intro of a seventeen-year-old character in my WIP, and now have it as:

    No sooner had I spoken than Astrid herself danced through the smoker’s doorway: whip-lean in slender khakis, white tails of her beau-trophy shirt flaring wide with each twirl.

    She was trailing what appeared to be a sable coat along the ash-foul carpet behind her, and high as a ribbon-tailed kite—Ray-Bans still on, Walkman turned up so loud everyone in the room could hear David Byrne’s tinny “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco” plaint bleeding out from under the headphones.

    “Darlings,” she said, flashing a red box of Dunhills, “who’s got a light?”

    ***

    Still way too long… I despair.

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