Unforgettable Character Introductions
Great characters are great from the first moment they appear on the page or screen. We’ve all experienced that electrifying rush—the knowing that this fictional person will be with us for the rest of our lives. So how do authors and screenwriters achieve that magic?
Today we’re going to focus on your INTRODUCTION TO THE MAIN CHARACTER (also helpful for any of your characters!).
I’m not talking about physical character description, here. That can be part of a character introduction, but doesn’t have to be (as you’ll see in a minute!). And physical description rarely gives us the essence of a character. Personally I think action is the most expressive of character. The key word there is personally.
You need to look at character introductions that do what you want to do with your book or script.
Hopefully I can convince you to commit to always being on the lookout for good ones!
Here’s an easy and fun way to train yourself. It’s one of my favorite non-working work things to do! Take a bunch of books from your TBR pile (literal and virtual), maybe cuddle up with the cat or dog, and read the first chapters of each, one after another. It’s not just a great way for you to get inspiration for writing your own killer first chapter (I posted more about First Chapters here). You can use this exercise to focus in on ANY aspect of your book you need a jolt of inspiration for!
It’s especially helpful for that all-important introduction of your protagonist.
Let’s look at a few standouts I’ve pulled from my own shelves to get you thinking— I’ve chosen book introductions of characters who also became iconic movie/TV characters, to increase the chances that you’re familiar with these books and characters already (and increase your own chances of a movie/TV sale!).
I usually talk about story elements using movie examples because it’s a shortcut for you. But when we’re talking about an element like the Main Character Introduction, it’s important to see how authors do it. (Find links to discussions of great movie characters below).
Vera Stanhope, in The Crow Trap.
This Book 1 of the wildly popular traditional “Vera” mystery series, written by the all-around lovely Ann Cleeves, is unusual in that the series lead doesn’t take over the investigation until the Midpoint of the book! But Cleeves introduces her in one scene early on, briefly, with such unforgettable panache that the reader is waiting in suspense for half the book until she barges back into the narrative and takes over. It’s incredibly effective. It’s also a stellar example of a key storytelling technique: the PLANT.
And it’s short enough that I’ll just give it to you, with a link to the book.
It’s written in third person, from the POV of Rachael, one of the three POV characters of the book. And the setting is a funeral of a woman who has taken her own life, shocking and unsettling her village. So this intrusion is a standout—highly inappropriate in the somber setting…
“The vicar had already started speaking when the door banged open again. Rachael was reminded of an old, bad British movie, though whether it was a thriller or a comedy she couldn't quite say. The vicar paused in mid-sentence and they all turned to stare. Even Dougie tried to move his head in that direction. It was a woman in her fifties. The first impression was of bag lady, who’d wandered in from the street. She had a large leather satchel slung across her shoulder and a supermarket carrier bag in one hand. Her face was gray and blotched. She wore a knee length skirt and a long cardigan weighed down the front by the pockets. Her legs were bare. Yet she carried off the situation with such confidence and aplomb that they all believed that she had a right to be there. She took a seat, bowed her head as if in private prayer. Then looked directly at the vicar as if giving him permission to continue.”
(Rachael looks for the woman at the reception, but she’s disappeared. But she’ll be back…)
The links I’ve posted for each book will take you to the product pages on Amazon, where you can read the openings of the books using the Look Inside option. But of course you’ll want to buy the books, hopefully from your favorite local bookstore, and keep reading
Read The Crow Trap:
US: https://amzn.to/3XWajGp. Free with Kindle Unlimited.
Reacher, in The Killing Floor.
Then there’s the first chapter introduction to one of the most famous crime fiction characters of the late last century (doesn’t that make you feel old?) and this one: Lee Child’s Reacher, in The Killing Floor.
Do yourself a favor and read it. This one is written in first person. It’s an action scene, sort of, because it’s an arrest that could have been violent and bloody—but isn’t. It is a standout as an action scene, as it takes place almost entirely in Reacher’s head. He seems to slow time (one of Reacher’s superpowers, something that always makes the action scenes in a Reacher book addictively readable) as he assesses every detail of the situation, the diner and everyone in it, the fact the heavily armed police are there for him, how he could take action and what would happen if he did, the level of skill and professionalism of his antagonists (the arresting officers), to whom he is not antagonistic himself.
So many impressions! Overwhelmingly, that this guy is smart. He is intensely familiar with law enforcement, and doesn’t merely assess their physical skills and anticipate their moves, but what they are thinking about him, their feelings, and their actual morality. He expresses no fear about the situation; instead he is grading them in his head about their procedure and performance of duties, almost as if he were a superior officer ranking a training exercise (Hmmm… could that be an important CLUE to his back story?).
He is cool enough —and responsible enough—to take the time to leave a generous tip for his server before he responds to the cops’ commands. He is supremely confident and not at all an asshole about it. He doesn’t seem like a criminal, though he admits he’s killed in the past.
All this while “saying nothing” (which will become the series catchphrase) aloud.
And note - there is not one word about his physical size or strength. Size and strength aren’t Reacher’s most distinctive superpowers by a long shot (or someone like me wouldn’t have kept reading past the first chapter!).
Easy Rawlins, in Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosely
As with the Reacher intro above, Mosely’s riveting and atmospheric first scene is both the character introduction and the Inciting Incident: the classic Mystery/Crime/Thriller Inciting Incident of the protagonist being offered a job.
It’s first person, and the first paragraphs are Easy instantly noticing a white man in a suit walking into the all-Black bar of Easy’s pal Joppy. Easy immediately registers fear of the stranger, an instinctive reaction to a systemic enemy, even though he is “used to white people by 1948” because of his distinguished war service. But it’s more than that: an intuition that we feel, too. And this is the man who wants to hire Easy for a vague job, a classic “offer he can’t refuse,” because Easy has just been laid off and he is desperate to keep the thing he loves most in the world, his little house.
Mosely puts us in Easy’s skin, uses his keen sense of observation to make us feel his revulsion for the man, whose “grip was strong but slithery, like a snake coiling around my hand.”
In a few short, tense pages we get the whole set up, and we know that taking the job—whatever it turns out to be— will be the worst decision of Easy’s life— but he’s going to do it anyway because he wants to keep his house so badly. And we want it, too. An absolutely excellent example of engaging the reader/audience in the story by telling us what the main character WANTS so we can want it for them.
US: https://amzn.to/3XWZbsX. Currently $1.99!
Want a romance intro? How about the one that arguably spawned the entire chick-lit genre?
Bridget Jones, in Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
The first two pages are an impossible and hilarious list of perfectly in-character New Year’s resolutions. The third page, dated January 1, is a list of alcohol, cigarettes and calories consumed that day, and rationalizations.
It’s not a scene at all—but we instantly GET Bridget. Who hasn’t been there?
US: https://amzn.to/3SpSY7p. Currently $1.99!
Now, I’m giving you these iconic introductions as inspiration, not intimidation! Your main character introduction may have been the first thing you wrote, flowing out of you as effortlessly as if you were dreaming it. Or - you might know you haven’t nailed it yet. Or—you have no idea how to write it. It doesn’t matter! You might not be ready to write it yet. There’s plenty of time. You don’t have to write a book or script in order. But you do have to have this scene simmering on the back burner.
So read a few introductions for inspiration. Read about essential ingredients of a main character (I’m compiling those posts here) and start looking for them in the book and film characters you love or admire. Take note of what works for you—and be assured that your brilliant creative mind is on the case.
It’s a process. And the more conscious you get about it, the better and faster your writing will get.
I also suggest you read these chapters in the workbooks on Character Introductions and Character Clusters:
Stealing Hollywood, Chapters 38-39,
Writing Love, Chapters 33-34.
And I’d love to hear your own favorite character intros! Once you get going, it’s pretty addictive!
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All material © Alexandra Sokoloff, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors