A Study In Character Introductions

For the past several weeks, I’ve been attending a screenwriting workshop in New York City. Described as a “fusion” class, participants write and discuss scripts for both film and television.

I’m working on a story I’ve struggled to write as both novel and short story. I figured maybe tackling it as an on-screen project might break the obstacles I’ve faced with it. We’re about ten pages into each project. The “hook” pages, if you will. Because if a reader can’t get past the introduction, they’ll give up and move on. And I’ve discovered that my biggest weakness with a story hook is introducing my characters.

Strong First Impression

It’s incredibly important, especially with screenplays, to give a strong first impression of each main character. But the four characters in my story somehow garbled together rather than individuals.

So my next step, after the latest round of notes, is to pick each character apart and figure out what makes them unique from the rest. As part of our homework in character introductions, the class instructor told us to study Little Miss Sunshine.

The opening scene for Little Miss Sunshine is a wonderful example of character introductions. We get a quick, solid understanding of where each character starts their journey.

The Dreamer

First we spot Abigail Breslin’s character. She watches a beauty pageant on TV, pausing and rewinding on a close-up of the winning contestant. She mimics the image, imagining herself a clear winner.

The Insecure

In a cut to our next character, played by Greg Kinnear, we hear him say, “There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers.” With that statement, we’re given the movie’s main theme. As he finishes his presentation, the camera cuts to his audience. The lights flicker on and we see a half-empty room; the students politely applaud him.

The Ambitious

Next our attention turns to Paul Dano’s character. A silent teenager, working out in his bedroom. We get a short montage of exercises, including weights, jump rope, crunches, and push-ups. He crosses days off a calendar extending the height of his room.

The Addicts

Grandpa shows up next. He shows us know right away that he’s a junkie enjoying his drugs to the fullest. We cut to Toni Collete’s character, established as a closeted smoker.

The Question Mark

Finally, the camera cuts to Steve Carrell. He’s in a wheelchair in a hospital room. We don’t know why he’s there, but his facial expression leads us to a few conclusions.

Visual Storytelling

I learned a lot through this scene alone. The power that a quick glimpse into a character’s life can reveal. Dialogue and exposition are good tools, as well. But especially in a visual medium, don’t underestimate how much you can show through a careful choice of images, statements, and an actor’s performance.

I’d love to study more great examples of character introductions. If anyone has a favorite, feel free to share in the comments below.

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