First impressions should not be wasted.
This is especially true when introducing characters into the story, whether that be in a film or on television.
Television and film are visual mediums, so if you can incorporate a visual connection that illuminates or defines the character when you first see them, it only adds to the effectiveness of the character in the world you’ve created.
In film, one could look to the first time we meet Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. We first meet him in a jungle, standing by a river, holding torn pieces of a single map in his hands. Behind him, one of his assistants, no longer trusting Indy’s judgment, pulls a gun. Indy hears the cock of the pistol. In silhouette, his head tilts slightly upon the recognition of the sound. In a quick motion he pulls out his whip, flings it, dislodges the gun from the assistant’s hand, showing his command of the whip, then steps into the light where we see his face for the first time.
The rest of the opening 10 minutes of Raiders is an extension of defining everything you need to know about the character Indiana Jones.
In television, due to the growing commercial time during the show, an hour long program is only about 40 minutes of actual story time, so you have to be more prudent with the amount of time you take to introduce your characters.
I recently watched the first episode of the cleverly written crime show called Castle and it had some of the most efficient and successful character introductions I’ve seen in quite some time.
Castle is about Richard Castle (played by Nathan Fillion), a flamboyant, womanizing, successful crime writer who, due to his contacts within New York City, is allowed to tag along with the beautiful, no-nonsense detective named Kate Beckett (played by Stana Katic). The opposites both attract and combat as they work together to solve crimes.
In the pilot episode the writers did a tremendous job of visually introducing the characters, immediately defining them from the first moment.
For example, we first meet Castle at a book signing of his latest book… a huge shindig put on by his publisher. He enters the scene wearing sunglasses at night, waving shallowly to his fans, then signs the cleavage of one attractive fan and offers to meet up with her later.
So, what do we know about Richard Castle? We know his self-absorbed (sunglasses at a night premiere), he’s shallow (signing cleavage), he’s a playboy (offers to meet up with the fan later) and he’s wealthy (the size of the premiere). That’s the character in a nutshell, all told to the audience in about 15 seconds.
The first time we meet Kate Beckett, she is at a crime scene that resembles something right out of one of Castle’s novels. She notices details about the victim no one else sees (showing she’s better than everyone else in the room), she mentions the connection to Castle’s book (which defines her as a reader and smart) and a female co-worker mentions, in confidence, that it wouldn’t hurt her to wear make-up every once and a while (which shows she doesn’t care about appearances, yet has potential swan beauty).
The first time we meet Castle’s teenage daughter, Alexis (played by Molly C. Quinn), she is at the bar of the premiere party, studying, her school books laid out across the bar top. Visually, we already know she doesn’t care about the party, she’s a very good student, grounded and therefore probably exceptionally responsible. The opposite of her father.
The first time we meet Castle’s mother Martha, a working, older actress (played by the reliable and hilarious Susan Sullivan), she is at the bar with her grand daughter, drinking a little too much, with her “gray-dar” on alert, hoping to find her next boyfriend. You know immediately which parent Castle emulated.
All of these are excellent character introductions. Once these broad strokes of the character are so quickly defined, as a writer you can continue to play them up or play the opposite depending on what you’re trying to accomplish in the scene.
One final note… there’s a wonderful saying that says “Great directing is 80% casting.” Never has this been more true in the show Castle. The main and secondary characters are perfectly cast which only elevates the successful character introductions even more.
There’s nothing worse than having to slowly believe an actor can be the character (Ashton Kutcher as an assassin, for example). The actors on Castle fit the characters to a T. If you have the right actors in the right roles, then your job as a director is simply not to screw that up.
So, the next time you put pen to paper, or the next time you plop in a movie or the first show in a TV series, take a moment to identify just how successful those important primary characters were introduced through casting and through visual elements the director employed.
If successful, then the rest of the story should be a wonderful journey.