Screenwriting 101: How NOT to Introduce Your Characters

By Shaun Leonard · April 25, 2017

Think about any story you’ve ever told. Chances are, you began by telling us who it was about. Everything else comes second. The same is true of a great screenplay. We need the who before we care about the why. The trick is to capture your reader’s attention from the moment your character shows up. Here’s how.

Your first instinct might be to just tell us who someone is. Your first instinct is wrong. If we’re reading your script, we want you to show, not tell. We want discovery rather than exposition. And the core of your description has to be visual. If your protagonist is struggling with addiction, don’t just tell us they’re an addict. Describe the shake in their once steady hands, or the track marks that create a constellation on their arm. Most importantly – don’t tell us they’re good at what they do. Put them in a difficult situation as quickly as possible, and then have them solve it in their own unique way. Or better yet, have them make it worse. Anything they do will communicate a lot more about them than a description. But of course, you still need to describe them.

Descriptions can be as simple as you want. An age range, a defining physical trait, an outfit, and we’re ready to see what they do. When taking this approach, be specific but not anal. By this I mean that four adjectives is way too many.  

For example: Jack, 20s, an athletic tanned neat businessman strolls down the hall.

I get it. You want us to know everything right up front. But don’t vomit words, give us a chance to discover while you create the character and their environment. There will be a moment where Jack can show off his neatness or athleticism. More importantly, how exactly can we tell that he’s a businessman? If it’s easy to see, then pick out the detail that makes it obvious. Or better yet, show us the character in action. Think back to any car mechanic in any film or tv show. Chances are they’re rolling out from under a car or working on an engine.

Here’s another big don’t. Don’t describe your female characters as pretty, or beautiful, or attractive, or sexy, or my personal least favorite, worn down by the years but still hot. This particular bad habit needs to be put down once and for all. Do everyone a favor and think about describing your female characters based on their actions and not what you or other people might think of their relative attractiveness. Let’s move on.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end. Keeping it moving. Too many scripts sputter in the beginning because they feel they need to cram in details about all of their characters. The best screenplays simultaneously develop character and plot through action from page one. Consider The Matrix (1999). Trinity is underestimated by some cops and proceeds to physically dismantle them. At the same time, Agent Smith is correctly estimating Trinity’s abilities. But he’s not scared of her. And she’s terrified of the agents, despite her incredible combat skills. So we know they must be something monstrous despite their boring suits. There’s conflict, action, drama, and we’ve just met two principle characters in less than five pages by moving from a fight scene into a chase sequence.

Download the screenplay for THE MATRIX here for free

Or take Cool Hand Luke (1967) and its first page. Lucas Jackson is wearing a faded GI field jacket and a bottle opener necklace. He’s dismantling a parking meter. How outrageous. Then we see that it’s not one parking meter, it’s a forest of them. Then the cops show up. It’s the most relatable crime we’ve ever seen, and we feel like we already know our main character before we flip a page. We’re getting information without feeling like we’re being spoonfed. We’re enjoying a story, not enduring a lecture. A good character introduction should be enjoyable, and like everything else in a script, should make us want to see what happens next. So make us feel something for someone we’ve just met. Take them for a ride, and bring us with them.

Download the screenplay for COOL HAND LUKE here for free