Thursday, July 1, 2010

Memorable introductions

"All the world's a stage,
"And all the men and women merely players;
"They have their exits and their entrances;
"And one man in his time plays many parts..."

There are a lot of ways to first introduce a character.  In first person, sometimes it falls to a "mirror sequence."

But I'm not talking about physical introduction, per se.  I'm talking about establishing character in just a short amount of time.  Granted, in our novels we have a little more time.  But our choices still impact that first impression.  Here are my tops for character entrances, probably all from film but that's just because they're so impactful visually.

1- Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino, Sahara (2005 movie)

Okay, I know that people who've read the books really had their qualms about this movie.  But go with me here.  The opening sequence tells us everything we need to know about these two men before there's been a word spoken in the movie.  The camera pans over equipment, pictures showing the two buddies from kindergarten, high school, military, college, salvage rescue, etc, models of shipwrecks, calendars showing dates and trips, newspaper articles, and the list goes on.  All these little snippets show us exactly who they are, their history, and their passions.  We have an entire character bible in about two minutes of visuals.  (The music helps, too, but hey.)

Have you tried incorporating something like this into a novel?  I know it's more difficult, but it can work.  In my last project when I was introducing my first five characters, I gave little description of their physical appearance.  Instead, I focused on what their homes looked like, how they'd decorated, etc.  It showed a lot about who they were without telling the reader.

2- Darth Vader, Star Wars: A New Hope

Yes, another movie.  But seriously?  The instant Vader walks out of that fog of smoke in his head-to-toe black, you know he's a baddie.  You also know he's a baddie you're gonna love to hate because he's so deliciously evil from the get-go.  And were we ever proved wrong?  Maybe in the end we didn't come to hate him so much as feel pity for him.

Does your villain's entrance hold a candle to this one?  Mine in my current project doesn't.  But he's got a different sort of entrance, one meant to evince pity.  More like Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

3- Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Honestly, who could forget our first introduction to Johnny Depp's swaggering, drunkard pirate?  I love what Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp said about this entrance on the director's commentary on the DVD.  It was along the lines of, "Until this point, you have no idea how to take this movie.  Are you allowed to laugh?  Is it a more serious film?  Now you have your answer."  And it's really true.  Before Sparrow's entrance, you've had young Will and Elizabeth meeting, Will bringing a sword and some flirtation between he and Miss Swann, and Will breaking a wall sconce.  Then all expectations get turned on their heads as our pirate hero rides his sinking ship to port.

While a scene like this would take a lot more time in a book, it could still be equally as powerful.  Instead of focusing on that physical description, give us an action.  Introduce your character by having them help an old lady across the street, or twist it and have the old lady helping him or her.  Show us how they react to a minor situation to help us set up our expectations for how they'll react to all the other challenges they'll encounter.

4- Numair, from Tamora Pierce's Immortals series, shows up in cameos in later Tortall-universe books.

Okay, Numair plays a huge role in the books.  But he's a character we meet seemingly late in the first book of Ms. Pierce's series.  (I love this series, by the way.  You can see my rating at Goodreads.)  When he first appears, well, we know we've seen him before.  Just not in the way he shows up when we first know who he is.  When he first actually appears, the reader knows something is up.  But they don't entirely know what.

One of my characters in my book appears first in one way, but when he or she shows up later, we realize that there's more to them than what meets the eye.  Again, turning expectations on their heads.  Have you ever thought of doing something like this?  (I highly recommend these books for lovers of YA fantasy.  That's why I'm being intentionally vague on what his entrance is really like.)

So, that's pretty much it for my list.  Are we noticing a theme here?  Many of these involve turning expectations on their heads.  All of these are accomplished in a relatively short amount of time, yet they have the same impact.  They tell us volumes about a character without endless amounts of denouement on their inner workings.

Did I miss any?  What are your favorite character introductions, be they from film or fiction?


  1. Awesome post!! And those are perfect examples. Love it! :-)

  2. This is a terrific list.

    It's got me thinking because my MCs get introduced in rather mundane scenes.

  3. I love when I read something that leaves me looking at a subject in a whole new way, and that's what your post did for me. Now I'm thinking there's a lot to be learned by how a character is introduced in other books and in movies.

    Thank you for an excellent post!

  4. I do love Johnny Depp's character in Pirates of the Caribbean. I also love the introduction of Scarlet O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.


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