Monday, August 25, 2014

Introducing characters in film or on the page

Ana posts a craft article from the RWA-Scriptscene loop on introducing characters
As all spec writers know, there are two things that count above all else when it comes to this screenwriting malarkey, and that's story and CHARACTER. No one ever disagrees with this, ¦ because you'd have to be CRAZY, right??
Yet too often, characterisation is underwritten in the spec screenplays I read. What's more, this will be the case from the get-go, with writers relying on cliche and familiar introductions for their characters. And as you can guess, those writers start as they mean to go on … It's a sad fact of screenwriting life that very few badly introduced characters miraculously turn into rounded, well-drawn and authentic characters over the course of the rest of the narrative! Supersadface.
So here's 10 character introductions I would like to see a LOT less of. Ready? Let's go!
1)  Character waking up in a messy room. This character's life is a mess! We can tell this by the fact s/he wakes up amongst overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles and glasses, plus dirty clothes strewn everywhere. Extra bonus points if s/he talks to thin air too about how terrible everything is. S/he may also receive a phone call from their Boss firing them and/or their mother, telling them to get their lives in order. EPIC FAIL. MORE: How Best To Introduce A Character?
2) Character running/jogging. Characters are not what they SAY, but what they DO,¦ and it would seem the average character runs. A LOT. Look, this was cool when Clarice Starling did it back in 1991, but remember this: she wasn't **just** running, she was undertaking an FBI OBSTACLE TEST. Think about that for a second – obstacles. Ooooooh! Protagonists need obstacles, right? RIGHT. MORE: All About Obstacles 
3) Character training (especially boxing or martial arts). Is your main character female? Great! Then introduce her in a gym, kicking the shit out of a punchbag and maybe grabbing a poor defenseless man between her thighs and pinning him to the floor. Because I know that's what I do when I'm not script reading. All women do, yeah? WHAT. MORE: 5 Ways To Write A Complex Female Character
4) Character in the shower. Look, we ALL like a bit of shower hottie action and I don't want to ruin everybody's fun, but it IS a cliche. Gratuitous shots of your tortured hero in the shower, so we can see scars and bruises all over his/her body. Tattoos of various life affirming quotes (Semper Fidelis is a favourite) are optional extras for the true cliche. BULLSEYE. MORE: 4 Tips To Write An Unusual Character
5) Character taking a lecture/meeting. Sure, lectures and meetings are handy expositional shortcuts, but these are such oldies, we need to tread VERY carefully. If your character is simply delivering information the audience needs to know? BAD. If your character has to deal with something in the course of that lecture, “ a heckling student, perhaps?,  then that exposition is easier disguised and your character's nature revealed in doing so. MUCH BETTER. MORE: 11 Expositional Cliches That Will Kill Your Story
6)  Character at work that has absolutely nothing to do with the story or character's motivation. Sometimes writers will introduce characters in unusual places of work. Whilst a great start, the first time we see a character, we need to get a sense of WHY we're seeing him/her there (and not somewhere else). If we consider Ray in WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005), we meet him at work, operating a crane. Why? To show this character is very much an Average Joe: a blue collar worker, he is a straightforward guy who believes his own eyes. That's why we can believe ultimately he will do whatever needs to be done to survive. That's his motivation. MORE: An Ounce Of Behavior Is Worth A Pound Of Words by Daniel Martin Eckhart 
7)   Characters in the middle of a battle that turns out to be a simulation. Argh, can we put this one to bed now?! I last saw this opener produced in X MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006) and it felt older and stinkier than a three-week-old Gorgonzola even then, yet spec science fiction screenplays STILL persist in introducing their characters and arenas this way. If you're even going to attempt to try this one, you simply must subvert it (and our expectations) in some way! MORE: 5 Expendable Heroes We Hate To Love
8)   Character in the middle of a rescue, gunfight [or similar] and someone DIES and it's HIS FAULT. The Tortured Hero usually becomes tortured on the basis of someone dying on (usually) his watch: cue our hero, gathering the (usually) female character (who's dead) in his arms and wailing "Noooooooooooo!" To be fair, I haven't seen this character introduction in a produced movie for a good while (though Hugh Jackman seemed to do it a lot in the resolutions of his movies in the early noughties), but sadly spec screenplays are still doing it, usually within the first ten pages. Over and over. MORE: What Is A Hero?
9) Character in the middle of an exciting event  gets rewound. I blame MEMENTO for this one. We'll join a character on page 1, right in the midst of the action. Sometimes it will be high octane; other times, it will be some sort of intriguing "smaller" occurrence. But whatever: because suddenly it's all gone and those dreaded words appear as a caption: "48 HOURS (OR SIMILAR) EARLIER."Yaaaargh! You can't do this to us! I'm so bored of spec screenplays rewinding like this; it feels stale and old. What's more, too often those events rewind to characters waking up; running; in the shower! NAUGHTY WRITERS. Sheesh. MORE: All About Non-Linearity 
10) Character gets no real introduction at all. Yet all of the above pale into insignificance when we consider the average character in spec screenplays gets NO introduction. That's right, NONE! This generally happens one of three ways I find:
i) Walking. That's right: your character is walking down the street. Or ambling. Or striding. Whatevs. Doesn't matter how many synonyms you use homies, it's still just someone walking. What does this tell us about this character?? Not much, that's what. MORE: How To Make Your Screenplay Visual 
ii) Clothes. Get this: clothes do not maketh the (wo)man. Right? Right. Yes, yes, whether someone is disheveled or pristine DOES make a difference, so use those words, not whether they're wearing jeans or not. PLEASE. MORE: Character Introductions & Voice by Julie Gray
iii) Nothing. That' right. NOTHING. The character simply starts talking. OMG. No!!! MORE: All About Opening IMAGES
So next time you're wondering about how to introduce your characters, think about WHO they are, WHERE they are, WHAT they're doing, and what this means to the story. Remember, when it comes to character introductions: start as you mean to go on.
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  1. Although this applies to screenwriting, much of it can also be applied to novel writing, especially the clichéd character traits that you see in so many stories.

  2. Honestly, I don't have a problem with some of these. I'd have to say, in my opinion, that in this case, screen writing and romance writing are different. I'm not saying all of these are good, but some of them, quite frankly, are.

    1. I'd very much agree that screen writing and romance writing are different, but I think the main point of this was to tell us to avoid the hackneyed characters and/or scenes, which applies as much to novels as it does to films.

    2. I think there's a big difference between hackneyed and a new twist on an old theme. I take more objection to the snarky descriptions of the introductions than the actual introductions, and I think that done the right way, even the most overused could possibly work. And I must be in a bad mood if I'm objecting to snark. ;)

    3. LOL, Jen! Love your response to snark! And yes, there are many ways to introduce a new twist to an old theme.

  3. I think with romance writing, we tend to do the 'no introduction' most often. Or at least I do. When you start in the middle of the action, so to speak, we jump right into the story, then gradually fill in traits for our characters.

    1. Very good point, Debra! Maybe 'literary' work might start with a detailed description of a tramp limping along a street but, as you say, in romance novels, you have to get he reader straight into the action. Even romance movies start in a different way than you would start a romance novel. I'm thinking of one of my favourites, The American President. If I was writing that as a novel, I would start at the moment where Sydney Ellen Wade is arriving at the White House for her very first meeting there, and not with the President walking along to the Oval Office and having a discussion with his staff. That, to me, sums up the difference between screen writing and romance novel writing!