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By Noelle Buffam · October 24, 2010
You’ve heard the phrase a million times; “You never get a second chance at a first impression”. Although you probably rolled your eyes at your mother when she uttered this cliché, these words of wisdom still ring true… especially in screenwriting.
In screenwriting, character introductions are extremely important. The moment a character is introduced carries the ability to invoke some of the most powerful emotions in the world: joy, anger, fear, and envy. Not only can this moment inspire an intense audience reaction, but it can also offer a unique opportunity for insight and explanation.
We can learn about a character in many different ways. We can learn by what they do and what they say. We can also learn by what other characters say about them and how they react to those characters. The best character introductions in film not only use these means, but they do it in a concise and creative way.
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This list is complied of some of the most creative and complex character introductions in film. The fact that the characters on this list are all recognizable serves as an example of the importance of the character introduction. If done correctly, the character introduction can begin the transformation of a character into an icon.
10. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
The music swells as the great Captain Jack Sparrow sails into Port Royal. It’s a dramatic and heroic moment… until the shot reveals his sad, sinking boat. Jack jumps off the mast just before it becomes fully submerged underwater and swaggers past the dockhand.
The mere image of his arrival on his sinking boat is enough of an analogy to understand Jack Sparrow. He is a pirate that could be a great Captain, if only he had the means. If contemplated, his entrance could be considered sad – he salutes his dead comrades and then returns to bailing water out of his ratty boat.
Instead of coaxing pity out of the audience, this backdrop allows Jack to show the audience style, attitude, charm, and impeccable timing. This introduction relies on the character’s personality to turn a depressing situation into a glamorized entrance that leaves the audience wishing that they were Captain Jack Sparrow.
EXT. PORT ROYAL – HARBOR – DAY
The skeletal remains of four pirates, still clad in buccaneer rags, hang from gallows erected on a rocky promontory. There is a fifth, unoccupied gallows, bearing a sign: PIRATES – YE BE WARNED.
The top of a billowing sail passes regally in front of them. On the landward face of the sail, apparently high in the rigging, is a man for whom the term ‘swashbuckling rogue’ was coined: Captain JACK SPARROW.
He gazes keen-eyed at the display as they pass. Raises a tankard in salute. Suddenly, something below catches his attention. He jumps from the rigging —
— and that’s when we see that his ship is not an imposing three-master, but just a small fishing dory with a single sail, plowing through the water — the Jolly Mon.
9. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000)
It’s an introduction that demonstrates the perfect amount of show and tell. Patrick Bateman is introduced by a voice-over along with a montage of his morning routine. Immediately, the audience recognizes him as a narcissist. We are taken on a tour of his posh penthouse as he explains how taking care of your physical self is important. He explains that he wears a face mask to reduce “puffiness” and can complete 1,000 crunches a day. He continues to explain every beauty product he uses in specific detail.
This character introduction works so well because the voice-over is paired with poignant images of him. A haunting shot at the beginning of the scene consists of Patrick looking at his reflection in a Les Miserables poster. The last image shows Patrick pulling off the face mask as he stares intensely at his reflection. These images make the chilling declaration, “I simply am not there” completely believable to the audience. There is no doubt that by the end of his introduction, the audience knows Patrick Bateman a psychopath by definition.
INT. BATEMAN’S APARTMENT- MORNING
My name is Patrick Bateman. I am twenty-six years old. I live in the American Garden Buildings on West Eighty-First Street, on the eleventh floor Tom Cruise lives in the penthouse.
Bateman stares into the mirror. The masque has dried, giving his face a strange distorted look as if it has been wrapped in plastic. He begins slowly peeling the gel masque off his face.
There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping you and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.
8. The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998)
We meet The Dude in a grocery store late at night as he checks the expiration dates on milk cartons. Everything about him embodies a comical laziness – from his appearance to the fact that he writes a check for $0.69. But what is most admirable about this scene is not The Dude’s Bermuda shorts and milk mustache, but rather the use of the voice-over.
Though it is commonly referred to as an “easy-out” in screenwriting, the Coen Brothers show us how to do voice-over right – to compliment a scene instead of using it simply as exposition tool. The moment The Dude writes out the minuscule check is paired with the V.O.: “The Dude was certainly that–quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County”. The voice-over is perfectly suited to the scene, adding narration only to enhance the humor, without being obtrusive. The voice-over ends with “I lost m’train of thought here. But–aw hell, I done innerduced him enough”. Yes, indeed.
It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.
7. Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967)
It’s the simplicity and brevity that makes this character introduction unforgettable. Mrs. Robinson delivers only eleven lines of dialogue, and although these lines seem like unsubstantial small talk, her presence is commanding from the first moment her silhouette is seen in the doorway, maintaining power in the scene by her actions and attitude.
She makes herself comfortable in Ben’s room even though she’s not welcome. She leaves her used match on Ben’s bedspread, tosses her cigarette carelessly in the trashcan, and even mocks Ben by saying, “Oh – I forgot. The track star doesn’t smoke.” And when Ben is reluctant to drive her home, she takes control by throwing the car keys across the room, forcing Ben to retrieve them from his fish tank.
This scene is one of the best examples of an economical character introduction because the short scene not only illustrates many of Mrs. Robinson’s character traits, but also plants some of the main themes of the movie: manipulation, lust, and control.
INT. BEN’S ROOM – NIGHT
Ben stands with his back against the door. The SOUNDS of the PARTY downstairs and, as Ben walks across the room to a window, the SOUND of the WIND.
Over Ben to pool area and people below. SOUND of the door OPENING. Ben turns. MRS. ROBINSON enters the room.
Oh. I guess this isn’t the bathroom, is it?
It’s down the hall.
They stand for a moment, looking at each other.
How are you, Benjamin?
Fine, thank you. The bathroom is down at the end of the hall.
Mrs. Robinson moves into the room and sits on the edge of the bed.
6. Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
It’s a scene that shows the importance of character reactions. A mustached man, Sundance, plays blackjack with the saloon owner, Macon. Not aware of the identity of Sundance, Macon accuses him of cheating and puts his hands near his guns, relaxed and ready. Butch enters the saloon, doing his best to lighten the mood, trying to get Sundance to forget it and leave, but Sundance won’t budge: “I wasn’t cheating”. Sundance explains to Butch that “if he invites us to stay, then we’ll go.” Butch does his best to encourage Macon to “ask them to stick around”, but Macon stands firm until Butch finally says, “I can’t help you, Sundance.”
The mere mention of his name changes Macon’s mind quickly. He’s terrified yet scared to show it. Eventually, with the help of encouragement from Butch, Macon becomes apologetic, and asks them to “stick around”.
This scene not only establishes Butch and Sundance’s relationship, but it shows the audience that Sundance is a man to be feared. The last part in the character introduction scene includes Macon asking Sundance how good he is with a gun. Sundance responds by shooting Macon’s gun belt off of him, without inflicting any injury. With this swift move, Sundance’s superiority is secured.
INT. MACON’S SALOON – DAY
I can’t help you, Sundance.
ZOOM TO Macon as the last word echoes. It registers, that word, and now Macon has a secret he tries desperately to keep behind his eyes: The man is terrified.
THE SUNDANCE KID, for that is the name of the Mustached Man. He sits slumped a moment more, his head down. Then he slowly raises his head. His eyes dazzle. He looks dead into Macon’s eyes. Still staring, he stands. He too, wears guns.
A brave man doing his best, Macon stands still and dow not look away, yet the panic is slowly starting to seep out.
I didn’t know you were The Sundance Kid when I said you were cheating.
Sundance says nothing. His eyes are on Macon’s hands now.
If I draw on you, you’ll kill me.
There’s that possibility.
5. Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
When Darth Vader made his film debut, he secured his place as one of the greatest villains of all time. His appearance is enough to secure such an honor, but it is his manner that seals his fate in film infamy. The Rebel ship has just seen a laser-gun battle and dead bodies litter the corridor. From the passageway, Darth Vader appears all in black. He immediately commands respect as the Storm Troopers stand at attention. His helmet, cape, and voice make the moment even more dramatic. He strides past the dead bodies and continues on to interrogate a Rebel Officer. He kills the officer with a chilling ease that could make any audience member shudder. His appearance, presence, and actions make him the ultimate image of evil.
INTERIOR: REBEL BLOCKADE RUNNER – CORRIDOR
The Rebel refuses to speak but eventually cries out as the Dark Lord begins to squeeze the officer’s throat, creating a gruesome snapping and choking, until the soldier goes limp. Vader tosses the dead soldier against the wall and turns to his troops.
Commander, tear this ship apart until you’ve found those plans and bring me the Ambassador. I want her alive!
4. Luke in Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Within the first images of the film, the audience understands the entire psychology of Luke. He is drunk and on the street, destroying parking meters. The last image of the introduction scene shows Luke’s face illuminated by police headlights. He sees the officers coming towards him and smiles. He raises his beer to them in a “cheers” signal. In this short time, the audience understands that although he is extremely charismatic and likable, Luke has a self-destructive nature and an inability to conform to authority. Not only does this character introduction explain a character, but it foreshadows Luke’s tragic demise.
INSERT: PARKING METER SUPPORT (NIGHT)
CLOSEUP of a pipe cutter attached to the meter neck, metal slivers curling out.
CLOSEUP PARKING METER (NIGHT)
as the meter head falls out of FRAME.
NEW ANGLE ON METER (NIGHT)
as it falls to the ground amidst a forest of meter stands and Luke’s hand comes into the FRAME to pick it up and we SEE him in CLOSEUP for the first time. He is cheerful, drunk, wearing a faded GI Field jacket. A bottle opener hangs on a silver chain around his neck.
3. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979)
In film, anticipation can be an incredible tool. Apocalypse Now demonstrates the power of anticipation. The entire film leads up to the introduction of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, and after almost two hours, the audience finally meets him. Willard arrives at Kurtz’s outpost, only to see dead bodies and severed heads against the jungle backdrop. Anticipation is built in every step on the way to Kurtz. Willard travels through the darkness of the Buddhist Temple where Kurtz is located. The Kurtz introduction scene delivers what the anticipation promised as the Colonel, seen “only in darkness and shadow”, lectures Willard about war and humanity. Francis Ford Coppola executes this scene to it’s fullest with Kutz’s delivery, while illustrating the power of anticipation and expectations as keys to character introduction.
INT. KURTZ QUARTERS – DAY
Willard, hands tied behind his back, is guided down a long corridor, followed by two Montagnards, both armed.
It smelled like slow death in there. Malaria and nightmares. This was the end of the river, all right.
They turn into the main room. the natives indicate for Willard to kneel down on the floor. The CAMERA MOVES, REVEALING KURTZ lying in shadow on a bed. We will SEE him only in darkness and shadow.
2. Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Sunset Blvd. provides a character introduction scene that is completely unique. The character of Norma Desmond is introduced not by what she says or what others say, but by the atmosphere and location. Joe Gillis pulls into Norma’s driveway and sees a decrepit, old mansion. It clearly used to be a spectacle of elegance. The setting of the house mirrors Norma’s life. She found her height of success in silent pictures, but now she is old and unimportant.
When Gillis sees Desmond for the first time, her appearance is even more eccentric and over the top than her monstrosity of a house. This scene is great because it psychically demonstrates what is happening emotionally. The first images of the house and Norma get to the core of the movie. This scene and the character of Norma is encompassed when Joe says, “You used to be big” and Desmond responds, ” I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
INT. NORMA DESMOND’S ENTRANCE HALL
It is grandiose and grim. The whole place is one of those abortions of silent-picture days, with bowling alleys in the cellar and a built-in pipe organ, and beams imported from Italy, with California termites at work on them. Portieres are drawn before all the windows, and only thin slits or sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs, which are always burning.
Norma Desmond stands down the corridor next to a doorway from which emerges a flickering light. She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her. She is dressed in black house pajamas and black high-heeled pumps. Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound around her head a turban of the same material. Her skin is very pale, and she is wearing dark glasses.
1. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
It’s seems natural that one of the most suspenseful psychological thrillers ever made would contain one of the greatest character introductions in film. When Clarice’s boss gives her the assignment of interviewing Lecter, he tells her to “be very careful with Hannibal Lecter…believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” But hearing this line alone, we can’t help it – he’s already in our head. We anticipate his physical introduction because of the danger and mystery already surrounding him.
The next time the audience hears of Lector is when Clarice goes to the asylum to visit him. Our anticipation continues as the doctor who runs the facility describes Lecter as “a monster”, and goes so far as to show Clarice a picture of a mutilated nurse that Lector attacked. The suspense builds as Clarice proceeds down the corridor alone, her footsteps echoing until… she is verbally assaulted by another one of the inmates.
And when the moment comes where Clarice finally meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter, we see him standing in his cell, waiting – a thick sheet of glass the only thing separating him from her. But as Clarice and Lecter begin to exchange dialogue, it’s clear that Lecter is polite, brilliant, but fiendishly complex as he quickly controls the situation by delving into Clarice’s past, illustrating her childhood issues.
It is the combination of anticipation, action, and dialogue that creates a suspenseful, unique, and hauntingly unforgettable character introduction.
DR. LECTER’S CELL
is coming slowly INTO VIEW… Behind its barred front wall is a second barrier of stout nylon net… Sparse, bolted-down furniture, many soft cover books and papers. On the walls, extraordinarily detailed, skillful drawings, mostly European cityscapes, in charcoal or crayon.
DR. HANNIBAL LECTER is lounging on his bunk, in white pajamas, reading an Italian Vogue. He turns, considers her… A face so long out of the sun, it seems almost leached – except for the glittering eyes, and the wet red mouth. He rises smoothly, crossing to stand before her; the gracious host. His voice is cultured, soft.