Do you remember the first time you saw Captain Jack Sparrow? Of course you do. It looked just like this:
Before this you knew nothing about Jack. He’s not foreshadowed at any point in the film until this moment. But within a few seconds you understand the basics. He’s a pirate, he’s a little out of it and he possesses incredible poise and chutzpah. Just look at the way he steps off that crow’s nest and onto the docks. Odds are that’s exactly the first thing you think about when you think about Jack Sparrow.
And that is the power of the introduction.
Or, as you’ve probably heard ad nauseum, first impressions matter. How your audience meets your characters is a vital part of how their experience with your story will be shaped. A good introduction needs to tell, in a nutshell, who your character is, set the tone he brings to the story and signal his importance to what is going on.
So go back and watch that introduction again. What does it tell you about Jack?
Well, he may be a pirate but he has a solid, even handed understanding of what that lifestyle implies. He even has a kind of respect for those who have lived it to the natural conclusion. And he tends to be a big picture kind of guy – looks up and out instead of down and around, or he might have noticed his boat was flooding sooner. Oh, and the man has swagger. No getting around that. It’s a testimony to Johnny Depp’s skills at characterization that he lets us know all this without saying anything at all.
There, in sixty seconds of cinema, is a character in a nutshell. Purpose, a way of thinking with attendant weaknesses, defining personality trait. Don’t brush off all the thought that went into setting all that up – I’m not reading too much into things. This kind of characterization is the best of the best and ever aspect of it is planned like a villain orchestrating global takeover. You or I might never reach this level of skill, because it’s very hard and requires both talent and dedication to reach, but the first step is acknowledging it exists.
So find the very essence of your character and try and show it in just a paragraph or two and you’ll be on your way to a good start. Usually it’s best to show the character in his natural environment, as we see with Jack, but sometimes showing them out of their element is more effective. Really, the particulars of where and when we first meet a character should be chosen to best cast the character in the audience’s mind. More on this later.
The second thing you want from an introduction is tone. Jack Sparrow is the soul of Pirates of the Caribbean. His light hearted, irreverent and cocky attitude permeates the movie and, no matter what the mood is before he appears, as soon as we see him swaying his way onto the screen we find ourselves smiling. In part because this was the man who stepped directly from sinking ship to dockside without even a backwards glance.
Every character, even your main character, brings a certain tone to the scenes they are in, whether it be tension, fun, unease or calm. Now central characters are certainly multidimensional but even they manage to hit all the notes they need to in a tone that is unique to them. The tone you set in their introduction is the tone your audience will expect.
Finally, introduce your character in a way that fits their importance to the story. Not every character needs a huge introduction that hints at the strengths, weaknesses and hidden depths of the character. If you plan to expand them in a later story that’s fine – do it then. Sure, keep their introduction and all the rest of their screen time in step with your plans for the future but don’t turn a side character into a red herring.
Interestingly enough, Jack Sparrow is an example of what can happen if you aren’t careful with a character’s introduction and development. He wasn’t originally planned as a leading character but as a supporting character to Will and Elizabeth. Depp took the role with both hands and ran with it, resulting in the movie we have. That may not have been a bad thing but the point remains – Jack became a central character because he demanded it. If you have someone who shows up demanding a bigger role and you don’t give it to him change the way he shows up or your audience will be very confused.
Making your characters real in the minds of your audience is a very difficult task and it begins when a new character is introduced. So give them the best introduction you can.
Now for an announcement! The first of my summer vacations starts this weekend. This is the longer of the two and I won’t have any time for writing this week so I’m not going to post anything either. Sorry.
But I’ll be back on July 7th with a new set of stories and a month-long feature on Wednesdays to boot! It’ll be worth it to come and check it out. See you then.