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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Character Introductions and Voice

The very first time we see a character in your script is a fantastic opportunity for you to show us in descriptive words, WHO this character is. We need to know their age, yes, but we need to know something about the totality of this person. Now, in reality, people are layered and complex and one glance can't possibly telegraph everything about them, can it? And yet one can get a snapshot of a person based on their clothing and mannerisms.

Here's an amalgam of BAD character introductions that I have seen approximately 1.3 million times:

JOHN PATRICK is 43 years old and is wearing khaki pants with a blue shirt and a green tie. He is the president and CEO of a large industrial company and he is uptight and judgmental. His WIFE is 38 and has blonde, curly hair and green eyes. She is dressed in a sexy dress and she is bored with her life.

So - here we have a collection of descriptive words that don't add up to a feeling of who this couple is. They both just stand there like mannequins. We have a lot of information here - and information, by the way, that we cannot SEE (the president and CEO of a company) and dull details that do not paint a picture of the essence of these people. What does "bored with her life" look like? Why the specificity of khaki pants and a blue shirt? What does that convey, actually? That he's conservative? Maybe.

I once read a script years ago in which an African American couple debarks a plane on a tropical island. As they walk down the steps to the tarmac, the writer described their clothing: JOHN wears jeans with a white tee-shirt, tucked in and tan loafers. GINA wears a red floral dress with pink and purple flowers, white sandals and a floppy hat made of straw.

TERRIFIC. What. In the heck. Does this mean? Why do I care? How about they are wearing casual vacation clothes? I mean - what is the meaning here? That they look like they are on vacation? A laundry list of clothing or attributes is just that - a laundry list. It doesn't feel like anything. Don't ask me why that terrible description stuck with me. I have no explanation.

Remember that in screenwriting, your job is to describe people and things in such a way that the reader picks up what you are laying down about a character in the macro and in the micro. The details of their clothing generally doesn't matter - unless it MATTERS.

Here are five key character introductions from JUNO that just sing on the page because they tell a whole mini-story about each character in an engaging, clever and voice-filled way:

JUNO MACGUFF stands on a placid street in a nondescript subdivision, facing the curb. It's FALL. Juno is 16 years old, an artfully bedraggled burnout kid in a Catholic school uniform.

PAUL BLEEKER steps onto the front porch of his house for early morning track practice. Bleeker is a frail 16 year-old kid who looks 14. He wears a cross country uniform that reads "DANCING ELK CONDORS." He is eating some kind of microwaved snack gimmick.

We see BREN cutting up LIBERTY'S food diligently. She's wearing a football sweatshirt over a turtleneck, and sporting the classic Minnesota mom bouffant.

VANESSA opens the door. She's a pretty, meticulous woman in her early 30s. Very Banana Republic.

MARK LORING sits in the austere LIVING ROOM with a woman in a business suit. He is boyishly attractive and in his mid-30s. He rises immediately upon seeing Juno and Mac.

Do Wavers see how entertaining and yet information-specific these introductions are? Do Wavers see the specific word choices that Cody made in order to convey a feeling of each character? Their ages and what they are wearing is noted but equally as much the way they do things speaks VOLUMES.

Bren cuts up her younger daughter's food diligently. Not precisely. Not efficiently. Diligently. Writers are wordsmiths - which is why one of my biggest pet peeves is screenwriters who do not have a love of or facility with language. Diligent is different than precise. It's a subtle difference - well, not really - it's a shading. Diligence conveys duty while precision conveys efficiency. Diligence is a trait that connotes working hard and precision connotes control. Is Bren a controlling mother? Not in the least.

How much does: " artfully bedraggled burnout kid in a Catholic school uniform" convey about this main character? Not just bedraggled - artfully bedraggled. Not just artfully bedraggled but an artfully bedraggled burnout kid. Take away any one of these words and the picture shifts just slightly, doesn't it?

Or the detail that Bleeker "is eating some kind of microwaved snack gimmick." Not an apple. Not a muffin. A "microwaved snack gimmick." Which he is eating while standing on the porch.

Notice the fact that Mark Loring "rises immediately upon seeing Juno and Mac." He's polite. Or is he nervous?

I'm actually not the type who idolizes or mythologizes successful screenwriters, heaping them with super-human accolades - HOW did you THINK of that SCENE?? - but I know good writing when I see it. These character introductions of Cody's NAIL the characters; they are engaging and they smack of the tone and vibe of JUNO. I don't care who you are - Diablo Cody or Judy Henkstein from Nebraska - writing in an engaging, entertaining way is just good stuff and it's completely within your reach.

We talked yesterday about doing an action line pass on your script this week - seeking out and destroying various action line problems (too dense, too scattered, too detailed). How about this week at some point you go through your script, Wavers, and take a look at how you introduce your characters using the examples above as inspiration? If Cody can do it, you can do it. Lots of screenwriters can do it - it's not rocket science. It's having FUN when you introduce main characters. It's having FUN with the language you use. It's looking over your palette of word choices and choosing specific words to convey specific feelings. Which YOU and only YOU get to do. Because this is your story, Wavers. How do you want to tell it? How do you want me to feel when I read it?

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Joe Public said...

It seems to me a character should be introduced in a way that somehow describes the flaw, the goal, the fear....I mean whatever good stuff you can fit in that says/describes what's going on internally with the character. And might even suggest the forces acting on he or she. Maybe what they're running from or running to?

Julie Gray said...

Joe, you are absolutely correct. I apologize; some things are so obvious to me that I don't think to point out and articulate them. Briefly describing who a character IS would absolutely include clever, subtle insights into fears, struggles and goals. But it's subtle. Like all good writing :)

Joe Public said...

I hope some day, if you haven't already, post a segment describing the best way to strategically design supporting characters...that best serves the main character.

That would be MOST helpful!

Anthony Peterson said...

It's so funny you wrote about this today. Just last night I delayed the entry point for the most significant minor character in my script. Instead of providing a wordy description I was able to introduce him with just a few words in a key scene where ONLY someone LIKE him would step forward.

Joe Public said...

Sorry, forgot to add a "please" on that last one!

dianejwright said...

Yes, yes, and yes! If I had a nickel...

E.C. Henry said...

Great post, it makes me feel itchy...

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Scott said...

Great post, Julie, and I'll be linking to it in a blog post tomorrow. Isn't it fair to say that when we introduce a character, we have the opportunity to describe their 'core essence?' So right up front in the first act, we help the reader distinguish between this cast of characters we're introducing by not only their physical appearance (if it's important) and their actions (if they're important), but also something about their distinctive personality make-up.

For example, how William Goldman introduces Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy & and the Sundance Kid:

"He speaks well and quickly, and has been all his life a leader of men; but if you asked him, he would be damned if he could tell you why."

Again great post. And hope you're doing well!

Désirée said...

Thank you for a great blog post.

I tampered with character introductions when rewriting my first draft into the second. (Please have a look at my blog for further info)

First time we see the main characters they make love. They are nude, tangled together under a blanket.

I didn't want to introduce them then, because it is sort of difficult to see that she doesn't bother with makeup and his clothes are ecological.

Should I introduce them anyway? Or wait until they get out of bed?

Chris said...

I like the ones that take it the opposite way and give us absolutely *nothing* about the character whatsoever:

"John Doe, 30, handsome"

"Jane Plain, young & beautiful"

I can picture them standing right in front of me . . .

Stan said...

I have the hardest time coming up with great intros for characters especially supporting ones in anything like the first draft. It's a real prob--I find the characters do a better job of revealing themselves through dialogue (and ack-she-own of course) as the script progresses. Still, how sweet it would one day be to write the perfect, pithy intro.

Julie, thanks for this article. Unlike my writing it's both subtle and good!

BTW, I would never put anything like what follows into an actual script. It *rhymes*. And yes I'm a fan of 'American Dad'--deal with it!

And to top this post off I'm actually waiting for a Kellogg's "All Bran" page to load in another page of my browser. Just to see if they actually make a peach flavor one. Ahh, research!

You know you want to Google it...
All-Bran. Click on the link--I triple dog dare you!

It loaded. One would never have thought there'd be such a neat site devoted to All-Bran...


He is STAN. Late 30's, shape of a bulldog, form of... MAN. Been there, done that, got the A-shirt shaped tan. He skips the cholesterol filled scrambled eggs and selects a bowl of Kellogg's Peach All-Bran.

Perched opposite on her chair is FRAN. Mid 30's, going on...the late 60's. Her beehive hairdo rises to a crescendo just short of the rotating ceiling fan. It's like Marie Antoinette vs. The Guillotine! Ignoring her flan, she dissects something far more fun:


No thanks.