Compelling Characters and the First Impression

Insisting on a “likable” protagonist is something producers and executives love to do. That’s because if a character is “likable” we feel for them and want to watch their story. We can relate and sympathize with their dilemma. We automatically cheer them on and root for them to succeed. So it goes, the more we care, the more we watch, the more money the producers and executives make.

 

But being “likable” isn’t the only way to get a reader or an audience hooked and invested. Sometimes, humanizing and creating sympathy for an extremely flawed character is a more interesting way to go. In my opinion, a protagonist can be “unlikable” as long as:

 

1) they feel real and three-dimensional.

2) they’re unique and fascinating.

3) we understand why they do what they do.

 

For example, consider THE SOCIAL NETWORK. One of the best films of the year and lets face it, the main character is a total jerk. Mark Zuckerberg is a genius, whose work basically changed the world. He’s complex, layered, unpredictable, brave, exceptional… but he’s also a downright despicable human being. Yet, we’re compelled to watch his movie.

Since most of you don’t have the luxury of writing about the genius billionaire who came up with Facebook, how do you go about creating a compelling hero in your script?

 

The first step is to write an awesome INTRODUCTION. An introduction that makes your character come to life. It should be pithy. Fun to read. And packed with essential info. What kind of info, you ask? Well here at SCRIPT ANATOMY we’ve assembled some TIPS ON WRITING EXCELLENT CHARACTER INTRODUCTIONS just for you!

 

(extra points if you can name the movie or television show from which these examples are plucked)

#1 For a basic intro, give us physical description:

 

It isn’t until she rounds the corner at the end of the block that we see her entire figure and appreciate why everyone is so goggle-eyed. Eye-catching is an understatement. All those folks who say Barbie’s proportions are unrealistic have obviously never met ERIN BROCKOVICH.


 

#2 The next step is to drop a hint of psychological make-up:

FRANKIE drops to one knee and we see his face. It’s a face that could only have been cast by generations of potato eaters, the kind of face that survives famines and frustrates invaders. Look deep into his eyes and you can see this man has been knocked to his knees, but he’s always come up before the count. Always will. Frankie picks up the kit and goes to work on Big Willie.

#3 Why not get a head start on answering the oft asked question: what drives your main character?

Where we find ADAM BRAVERMAN (41).  Beneath this affable, humane, good looking guy there is an insane lunatic, driven beyond reason to have a normal, happy family.  Adam, dressed in his coach’s jacket and baseball cap, kneels next to his son, adjusting his uniform which is a little askew as usual.

#4 Consider telling us how your character is perceived by the rest of the world:

MELVIN UDALL in the hallway… Well past 50… unliked, unloved, unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met. Right now all his considerable talent and strength is totally focused on seducing a tiny dog into the elevator door he holds open.


#5 Notice how most of these examples introduce their character in the middle of an action that tells us more about who they are:

CAROLYN BURNHAM tends to her rose bushes in front of the Burnham house. A very well-put together woman of forty, she wears color-coordinated gardening togs and has lots of useful and expensive tools.


 

#6 Write your intros with tone in mind. If you’re writing a comedy, make your intros funny:

 

REVEAL CHARLIE (now 30) and CAROL his current girlfriend. Charlie has a boyish charm and an infectious grin. He’s the kind of friend who would donate his liver so you could have another drink.

 

#7 And if you’re writing Action, well… make your intros intense and fast-paced:

 

A HEARTBEAT, working overtime. Like a symphony, other instruments join in:  Rapid BREATHING, POUNDING footsteps.

 

CLOSE ON THE FACE OF A WOMAN, late thirties.  Running. Her name is ANNIE FROST.  And if you’re wondering why you’re instantly drawn to her, it’s probably because she’s a Texan.  Wholesome.  Open.  Lethal —

 

Cowboy boots pounding the dirt like a machine.  Nothing else in the world except whatever she’s running from.  Or towards.


 

#8 For fun, you can add some contradiction or irony:

 

CHUCK BASS, 17.  Future Senator or cautionary tale.  With two girls in tow, KATY and ISABEL, 17.  Rosencrantz and Guilderstern in Jimmy Choos.  Drinks in hand.

#9 You can also introduce two main characters together, giving us a clue into their relationship history:

At an outdoor table sit JARED FRANKLIN, 20’s, manic, a little overweight, a lot oversexed and STEVEN BASH, 20’s, handsome in an innocent, likeable way.  Lifelong best friends, they haven’t really evolved since 10th grade.  They’re dressed casual, while eating breakfast burritos at their power table.

 

#10 Another way to introduce your Main Character is through the use of VO. Of course there are people who love this method, and those who despise it. So if you do decide to do it, do it really well –  and prove all those VO naysayers wrong:

(Note – this intro is for one of the most compelling, arguably “unlikable” characters on television. It gives us SO much information about who she is, about theme, tone, and about her dilemma – without being on the nose.  Aaaaah, yes. Beautifully done, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem. Bravo!)

INT. ROOM – MORNING

The buzzy hum of long fluorescent lights fill the air.  We’re

floating over a white linoleum floor.

 

JACKIE (V.O.)

Let us go then, you and I, when the

evening is spread out against the

sky, like a patient etherized upon

a table…

 

Sprawled and askew, in the middle of the floor, lies a woman,

on her back.  She wears a crisp, white, nurse’s dress.  This

is JACKIE, 40’s.  She’s absolutely still, but her eyes are

alive, insistent, a little wild.

 

JACKIE (V.O.)

T. S. Eliot.  10th grade English.

Sister Jane de Chantal.  What a

champ.  She’s the one who told me

that the people with the greatest

capacity for good are the ones with

the greatest capacity for evil.

Smart fuckin’ nun.

 

CLOSE on her hand, clutching a pill bottle.

 

JACKIE (V.O.)

L3,4 herniated disc…feels like a

bulging disc frag.  Fuck.  What do

you call a nurse with a bad back?

(beat)

Unemployed!  Ba-dump-ump.

 

Jackie shakes the pill bottle like a rattle.

 

JACKIE (V.O.)

One left.  That sucks.

 

 

So there you have it. Now sit yourself in front of your keyboard and write some kick-ass character intros. Follow it up with characters so interesting they force your reader to turn pages. Who knows, your work might end up having a significant impact on the world… just like Mark Zuckerberg.

 

HAPPY WRITING!

 

~Ali

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SA Contributing Blogger, ALI LAVENTHOL, is an ex-visual effects compositor turned writer living in Los Angeles. She studied screenwriting at Writers Bootcamp and UCLA, and was most recently accepted into NBC’s Writers On The Verge program with writing partner, Tawnya Bhattacharya. Tawnya and Ali also optioned their Rom-Com feature to producer Amy Salko Robertson and are currently penning the webisode series, THE BRIGHT SIDE. When not writing, Ali can be found walking her dog Mavis or staring endlessly into her refrigerator for the answers to life’s most mysterious questions. Which in turn, causes her to go to yoga, sometimes, too.

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Answers:

#1 ERIN BROCKOVICH by Susannah Grant

#2 MILLION DOLLAR BABY by Paul Haggis

#3 PARENTHOOD by Jason Katims

#4 AS GOOD AS IT GETS by James Brooks

#5 AMERICAN BEAUTY by Alan Ball

#6 GOOD LUCK CHUCK by Josh Stolberg

#7 CHASE by Jennifer Johnson

#8 GOSSIP GIRL by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage

#9 FRANKLIN & BASH by Bill Chais & Kevin Fall

#10 NURSE JACKIEby Liz Brixius & Linda Wallem