Movies are full of extroverts — outgoing, big personalities who take up the entire screen. They fit easily into screenplays because their temperaments make for interesting situations, events, and action sequences.
But, look closer and you’ll find that plenty of protagonists are actually introverted.
That doesn’t mean they’re shy, per se, though some definitely are. Most commonly, “introvert” typically refers to anyone who needs some alone time to recharge. Introverts may actually exhibit extroverted qualities, which can make them more complex and therefore more difficult to write as characters.
If your main guy or gal happens to be an introvert, here are five different ways you can highlight that quality in your screenplay.
1. THROUGH NARRATION
Getting the audience to feel as though they know a protagonist in a movie that’s only 120 minutes long is no small feat. When dealing with a more reserved character, that task only becomes harder. That’s where narration can help.
Take Amelie or 500 Days of Summer. Both films use third-person narrators at the very beginning of the story to introduce the audience to the main characters and give them information about the characters they might not otherwise know. It lets the audience get to know Amelie, Tom, and Summer much faster than they might otherwise.
Or, consider Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) voiceover in Beginners. By telling the audience about his parents, Oliver is actually providing exceptional insight into his own personality, emotions, and thoughts.
When either the protagonist himself, a minor character, or a third-person narrator talks directly to the audience, it creates an immediate bond between the fictional characters and those real people watching the film, allowing the audience to understand the characters more directly.
2. THROUGH PHYSICAL APPEARANCE
Physical traits and characteristics can communicate a character’s personality without any words at all — which works to the screenwriter’s benefit, as dialogue takes up more space on the page.
Allison’s all-black attire in The Breakfast Club, Sherlock’s darting eye movement, Newt Scamander’s quivering shyness in Fantastic Beasts, or Duncan’s hunched gait in The Way Way Back — the perfectly chosen characteristic can immediately alert the viewer to an introverted personality.
It’s often not important to add physical descriptions of your characters into a screenplay, that is unless there is an important detail that gives important insight into who that character is.
3. THROUGH INTERACTIONS (OR LACK THEREOF)
Introverts can sometimes be difficult to recognize because they aren’t hermits a la J.D. Salinger —introverts still surround themselves with people and go out into the real world like any other extrovert would. But the distinction is how introverts interact with people when they’re in the real world.
For example, think about Beauty and the Beast. The very first time Belle is on screen, she heads into the little town where she lives. She knows everyone, the ins and outs of how the town functions in the morning, and the routines of each local. On her way to the bookstore, she talks to a few people, sings a few lines, and doesn’t notice when a few women comment on how different she is — it’s as though Belle is simply an observer in her own town. Her lack of interactions and the way the townspeople react to her presence actually communicate more about her personality than if she had told the audience outright in song.
The same goes for Jay Gatsby, Ron Swanson, Earl (of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and countless other introverts. Gatsby may throw fabulous parties, but the fact that he doesn’t attend them tells us more than if he were the center of attention.
4. THROUGH OTHER CHARACTERS
One of the easiest and most effective ways to accentuate your introverted character is by surrounding them with extroverts. In a world populated with voracious, outgoing individuals, those who are more reserved will automatically stand out.
In films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Way Way Back, the introverts become friends with extroverts nothing like them at all. Quiet freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman) is finally able to relax when seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) befriend him. Awkward Duncan (Liam James) has trouble having a good time during summer vacation, until the free-spirited local waterpark manager (Sam Rockwell) takes Duncan under his wing. The contrast of personalities not only brings attention to the introvert, but the extroverts as well.
On the other hand, it’s also easy to highlight an introverted character by surrounding them with both introverts and extroverts. In The Shape of Water, Eliza’s (Sally Hawkins) closest comrades are her closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and chatty coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). By having Eliza interact with both, her personality is further emphasized — we see how strong she is during moments with Giles, how reserved she is while with Zelda, and how thoughtful she is when visiting the creature she falls in love with.
5. THROUGH STORYTELLING STRUCTURE
The final way to highlight an introverted character is a bit more complex than the other four ways, but it can have a huge effect if done well. By using the structure of your story to your advantage, you can prove to the audience throughout the course of the movie that your character is an introvert.
For example, look at The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In the start of the story, Walter (Ben Stiller) has frequent daydreams. But, as his life begins to become as exciting as his imaginings, the daydreams become less and less frequent until they disappear altogether. This storytelling technique subtly tells the audience that Walter prefers make-believe to reality, and shows the audience how Walter’s character grows with each thing that happens to him.
Similarly, the pace in which Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and Amélie Poulain’s (Audrey Tautou) characters are developed throughout their respective stories (Brooklyn; The Hunger Games; Amélie) allows for their personalities to show in the structure itself. By the end of the movie, each character has become stronger and more confident, leading up to the climactic moments of the films.
Consider the ways in which the structure of your screenplay can draw out your introverted protagonist’s personality.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.