Think there’s nothing to introducing characters in a script? Think again!
Over the next few weeks, I’m doing a deep dive into the subject of character introductions. Why the hell would I do that?
Read Part 1 for background.
Part 2 here.
Part 3: Character and Core Essence
We began our exploration of character introductions looking at the subject from the perspective of the reader, how with every script they crack open, they are set upon by a heretofore unknown cast of characters — strange names, voices, personalities. The reader’s experience is exacerbated by the fact that a majority of a script’s characters are introduced in the first thirty pages, meaning it’s one character… after another… after another… after another, all in a compressed and dizzying time-frame.
Then we moved onto the writer. Make a strong impression, editorializing, narrative voice — these are all concerns and tools of the trade for an individual crafting a story. They represent a first stage of understanding how to handle a myriad of character introductions so that what goes onto the page makes a positive, memorable impact on the reader, enabling them to sort through the various players they meet.
Our next stop shifts the point of focus to the character for how can a writer know what to say in an introduction if they don’t understand the figure they are ushering into the story universe?
Which raises the inevitable question: What is it we need to know about a character to help us craft an effective introduction?
This semester, I have been teaching screenwriting to an energetic group of college students. Here is a random selection of character introductions in their scripts before I schooled them on a better way to approach the task:
EMMA (20), a pretty, young girl wearing a weathered dress.
BUCKLEY, 25, is tall and ungainly. Gentle and soft-spoken, he does not fit in with his surroundings.
CELESTE SMITH, a frumpy 25 year-old, sits across a desk from a STUFFY BUSINESSWOMAN conducting a job interview.
LENA EDWARDS, late twenties, attractive and conservatively dressed, makes her way to the podium amidst applause.
Each introduction is comprised of some physical description, followed by a ‘talking heads’ scene [two or more characters exchanging dialogue]. What do we really learn about the characters? What can a reader take with them from these descriptions to identify the character as being unique? What about the introduction is at all entertaining?
The fundamental issue here: The writers described external aspects of each character when what helps a reader learn something meaningful, grab onto something unique, and find something entertaining usually lies inside the character — what I call core essence.
Core Essence is that critical aspect of a character’s being that defines who they are. It is a foundational part of their persona, a thumbnail summary of that which lies at the center of the psyche. And it can only be found inside the character, their Internal World.
Any writer who has engaged in even a small measure of character development will have trafficked in these type of questions: What is driving this character? What do they want? What do they need? What is it they fear most? What lies at the base of who they are? We take all those queries and address them to the primary characters in our story, and if we keep drilling down into them, we discover their core essence.
What can we do when we determine a character’s core essence? We brainstorm ways to present that idea in an entertaining fashion when we introduce the character.
A good example is the screenplay Shakespeare in Love [written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman]. The Protagonist is Will Shakespeare. What is his core essence? He is a creative individual who has yet to find his Muse, instead having spent the majority of his adult life wasting time in a series of meaningless sexual liaisons and low-brow writing projects to pay for more wine and women. In other words, he is lost.
How do the screenwriters introduce him? On P. 4 of the script, once it has established Will’s physical surroundings, there is this:
Here we have a perfect distillation of the Protagonist’s core essence, a writer looking for his Muse, a man scratching out names as he looks for his true identity, a lost soul.
Tomorrow more examples from movie scripts in which the screenwriters introduce key characters by conveying something of the character’s core essence.