You Had Me at Hello: The Art of Character Introductions
Originally published on TheScriptLab.com
When it comes time to debut your character for the world — er, audiences — to see, it’s no easy task. You’ve created the character. You know everything about them, and the viewers know nothing.
First impressions are important, so I studied some of my favorite movies and dissected the ways in which the main characters were introduced. You’d be surprised how much that introduction says about the character and the story itself.
LA LA LAND
Main characters — Mia, Sebastian
Type of introduction — The non-interaction
“La La Land” begins with the now well-known “Highway Scene,” a nearly five-minute-long musical number which doesn’t even feature the two main characters. Right after this though, we are introduced to Mia and Sebastian, both sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the overpass. Mia is rehearsing lines for an audition and Seb is rewinding and listening to the same string of jazz notes over and over again — indications of their dedication to their passions, details that become very important later in the story.
The first part of the film (“Winter”) shows the same day from Mia’s perspective, then Seb’s, ultimately leading to their first interaction, in which they don’t actually interact at all (Seb brushes off Mia’s attempt to talk to him after hearing him play at the restaurant).
This type of introduction works because “La La Land’s” central story is about two distinctly different individuals who impact one another’s lives for only a brief time. The audience needs to have ample time to get to know each of the characters before they meet and their stories entwine.
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
Main characters — Harry, Sally
Type of introduction — First encounter
Nora Ephron’s rom-com begins with the two protagonists’ first interaction. We meet Harry as he is bidding adieu to his girlfriend, a goodbye that includes a long and oblivious make-out session. Sally then drives up and coughs to interrupt them. Their mutual acquaintance (Harry’s then girlfriend) introduces them and, after another bout of kisses, Harry gets in the car and they take off for New York.
The key to the entire movie — Harry and Sally’s differences — is set up in the first scenes. The audience witnesses the way their personalities are seemingly at odds with one another: Harry kisses his girlfriend goodbye while Sally lays on the horn to get their attention; Sally explains how she’s meticulously figured out the road trip ahead while Harry digs around in the back seat and spits grape seeds out the window; her optimism at her future in New York is met by his cynicism.
It’s a typical set-up for rom-coms, but one that admittedly works perfectly in this case. Ephron introduces us to characters who have such opposing personalities they can’t imagine being with one another but, of course, that’s exactly why they will be in the end. It is this contradiction that supports the entirety of the movie, and it is shown in the very first scenes.
Main character — Dom Cob
Type of introduction — En Media Res (in the middle of things)
Christopher Nolan’s fifth feature film begins with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cob, lying at the edge of the ocean. Waves crash around him as he blearily looks around. He sees two children playing in the sand, but it’s initially unclear if this is memory or reality. Then he is prodded with a gun and picked up by several guards who take him to an ornate palace to meet with an older Asian man.
Cut to the same location, but both Dom and the Asian man are younger and cleaned up — it becomes immediately clear this is another time. From there, Dom and his colleague go on a mission to steal something.
“Inception” drops audience members right in the middle of the action (en media res, as the classic Latin saying goes). We aren’t told what’s going on, or who exactly it is we’re watching, but two things are immediately clear because of the way Dom is introduced:
First, that he is the protagonist of the story. The opening shot of the movie is of Dom’s face, indicating right away that he is most likely the central character. The following scenes follow him (and him alone) through the action, reinforcing the audience’s immediate assumption as to who their main character is.
And second, the slightly confusing vision of Dom’s children playing on the beach sets up the main question of the film — What is real? This question is brought up and answered again and again throughout the movie, right up until the final shot before the credits, and the doubt is planted in the audience’s mind in the very first encounter with the main character.
THE WAY WAY BACK
Main characters — Duncan
Type of introduction — Interaction with antagonist
The first shot of “The Way Way Back” is of a rearview mirror, where we can see a middle-aged man looking into the backseat. This man, Trent, is trying to get the attention of the teenager in the backseat, Duncan. We see that Trent is facing one way in the driver’s seat and Duncan is facing the opposite, looking out the back window in the way way back of the station wagon. Then comes the question.
“On a scale of one to 10, what do you think you are?”
Duncan’s reaction to this question tells the audience everything they need to know — that Trent is the bad guy, the bully, the antagonist. This is only reinforced by what happens next. Duncan answers that he thinks he’s a six, and Trent says that he sees Duncan as a three. What follows is another minute or two of bullying that ends with Duncan ignoring Trent and putting his earbuds in for the rest of the ride.
This initial interaction between protagonist and antagonist establishes both the central conflicts of the movie — the difficult relationship between Duncan and Trent, and Duncan’s lack of confidence in himself.
Main characters — Rick, Ilsa
Type of introduction — Through other characters
In the 1940s classic, “Casablanca,” it takes nearly a third of the movie before we are introduced to both main characters, Rick and Ilsa. There are shots of Rick’s cafe, scenes with his employees and customers talking about him, and other characters conversing about both Rick and the mysterious visitor who will be arriving with a beautiful woman (Ilsa) that night.
Rick commands the situations around him, made obvious by the way he is first introduced to the audience — signing a check. Then we see him moodily sitting over a chessboard, where he nods at the doorman to give approval to let certain customers into the casino room. His actions in the following scenes confirm what we’ve already heard about him through the other characters, that he, “sticks his neck out for nobody.”
The key to understanding the protagonists and the events in Casablanca is in this subtle set-up. The other characters introduce Rick, and make us believe certain things about his personality. Then, when Ilsa arrives with Laszlo, he breaks all of these rules that have been set up in the first 40 minutes of the film — an action meant to unconsciously signal to the audience that Rick is not what he seems.
500 DAYS OF SUMMER
Main characters — Tom, Summer
Type of introduction — Via omniscient narrator
This indie favorite begins with a shot of a man and woman sitting on a bench. An engagement ring is clearly seen on the woman’s finger, which is when the omniscient narrator butts in and introduces the story. “This is a story of boy meets girl,” he says.
There is vintage and modern footage of both Tom and Summer, while the narrator explains their characters. He tells the audience the main conflict of the story — that Tom grew up believing he’d never be truly happy until he found the one, and Summer doesn’t believe in love at all.
The short beginning scene ends with a deceiving sentence. “You should know upfront, this is not a love story.”
The introduction is meant to put the audience in the same situation as Tom himself — we see an engagement ring and assume the two characters end up together, establishing disbelief in the narrator’s final sentence before the story begins (similarly, though Summer tells Tom she doesn’t believe in love, he falls for her and believes they will be together). By starting the story in this way, the events of the movie (and the overall point of the story) impact the viewers to the same degree they impact Tom.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Main character — Gil Pender
Type of introduction — Voiceover Dialogue
We hear Gil before we see him. As the opening credits roll over a black screen, Gil talks to his fiancee, Inez, about his love for Paris. He emphasizes his adoration for Paris in the 20s, especially in the rain, something Inez immediately scoffs at. With just the inflection in their voices, it is clear that Gil and Inez don’t see eye-to-eye, a conflict that is central to the fantastical story.
When we do see them, standing on the picturesque green footbridge in Monet’s Garden, Inez says that Gil is in love with a fantasy. He responds that he is in love with her, but this line falls flat after what we’ve already heard. Skepticism at their relationship continues when they return to the city for dinner with Inez’ parents, only to see that Gil is clearly the only one truly enjoying their time in the City of Lights.
This type of introduction works for the story because, though the plot (the fact that Gil occasionally goes back to Paris in the 20s when a clock strikes midnight) isn’t introduced, the main conflict is — Gil’s inner conflict about his love for Paris and the direction of his life.
It is also interesting to note that Woody Allen’s 2010 movie actually begins with a two-minute montage of scenes from around Paris, which can be written off as unimportant far too easily. This montage not only sets up how crucial the location is to the central story, but also establishes the location as a character itself. In all of Gil’s romanticized talk of Paris throughout the movie, the city becomes a supporting character, one that is introduced before any of the human characters.
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Main characters — Zero Mustafa
Type of introduction — Story within a story (within a story); Meta-storytelling
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” relies on a hefty amount of exposition to introduce its main characters. It employs a technique best known from “The Great Gatsby,” in that the narrator is not the protagonist (or even part of the film’s core story, for that matter).
The first shot is of a memorial statue for the “Author,” who we see in person in the next scene, speaking from his desk about where stories come from. “The incidents that follow were described to me exactly as I present them here,” he says. Then we go back to when the Author was a young man, staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel.
There, he is introduced to an elderly man with a lively face and perceptible air of sadness. The Author is intrigued and, when the two meet properly in the hotel’s thermal baths, the elderly man, Zero Moustafa, the owner of the hotel, invites the Author to have dinner with him, over which he can tell him how he came to own the hotel. At the dinner table, he begins his story and the movie flashes back once again, to when Zero was a young man and working at the hotel. This is where the time in which the events of the movie actually take place.
This “meta” way of introducing the characters and beginning the story establishes the pace of the film, and feeling that the movement of story is, in a way, more important than the characters themselves. The plot, the characters, and the story itself are second to the chaotic ride that is the film — the point is to immerse audiences in the resplendent world Wes Anderson has created, and that is done, first and foremost, by introducing viewers to a story, inside a story, inside a story, inside a story.
When deciding how to have the audience meet your characters for the first time, make sure you choose an introduction that furthers your story in some way or subtly signals something important.
Whether that’s dropping the viewers right into the action, having an omniscient narrator do the introductions for you, or putting your protagonist up against your antagonist, the first encounter with your characters should be both memorable and telling.
After all, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.