10 Character Introductions Screenwriters Should Study
The first ten pages of a script are vital for any screenwriter. In those few pages, often referred to in screenwriting as the Pre-Existing Life, you have to establish who your character is, what is wrong with them (emotionally), and the world that they exist in. Below are a mere ten of countless films with great openings to show us the wide variety of characters and worlds screenwriters have introduced us to.
The Avengers: Tony Stark
Written by Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon’s first Marvel feature did not need ten minutes to introduce us to Tony Stark. Robert Downey Jr. already had two movies to let us figure out everything to know about Iron Man. Someone in the massive action ensemble needed to have a character arc though, so Whedon took five minutes to reintroduce us to Tony, his emotional need — ego, doesn’t play well with others or share — as well as the set piece for the final act: Stark Tower.
Vertigo: “Scottie” Ferguson
Written by Alec Coppel & Samuel A. Taylor
Sometimes in storytelling there will be an impactful event prior to the start of the story that needs to happen. Many writers often use a flashback to open a film to introduce that one beat. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart’s character Scottie has a fear of heights after an incident on a roof seen above. I would argue that this is more than a flashback. In it we also see Jimmy’s dedication to his job and need to be a hero. This is not a flashback to when he was five years old on a playground and falling, but much closer in time and a direct effect on all of the events that follow. After this sequence, the film re-establishes Scottie’s mental state after the accident, thereby creating two Pre-Existing Life sequences.
The Truman Show: Truman Burbank
Written by Andrew Niccol
Remember when we were excited to see what Jim Carrey was working on next? Those were the days, and it never got better than The Truman Show written by Andrew Niccol. In under three minutes we see Truman and the expansive world that has been built around him, completely unaware that his wife and best friend are as much of a lie as the small town where he lives. As the movie progresses, Truman’s naivete becomes more and more apparent as we learn just how far Ed Harris’s character has gone to keep Truman in the dark.
Clueless: Cher Horowitz
Written by Amy Heckerling
While Truman Burbank has no idea of the level of his isolation, Amy Heckerling’s Cher Horowitz chooses to embrace her world of isolation in Beverly Hills, having no concept of what it would be to live life without any money. She's as equally naive as Truman but with the spoiled attitude of a teenage girl who brought 80’s decadence into the 90’s with her. What we ultimately love about Cher though is not her amazingly cool way of picking out her outfits or her perfectly flipped blonde hair, but her love for those close to her. Watching her fight with her father over orange juice, or play matchmaker for two teachers, shows us how caring she can be both when there is or is not something in it for her.
Little Miss Sunshine: Richard and the Hoover Family
Written by Michael Arndt
Ensemble scripts are incredibly difficult to write well but Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt pulls it off where so many have failed. In this dinner scene, we watch the climax of a sequence that introduces us to each member of the Hoover family. Greg Kinnear’s character has the strongest emotional change (obsessed with winning, overbearing, and controlling), yet Carell’s insecurities, Collette’s nonchalance, Arkin’s lack of a filter, and Dano’s lack of a desire to be a part of his family are all in full display as little Olive prompts a conversation about a very serious topic.
Saving Private Ryan: Captain Miller
Written by Robert Rodat
1998 may be one of the best years for film. On top of The Truman Show and the [unlisted, Oscar-winning] Shakespeare in Love, there was Saving Private Ryan. After a brief flash-forward, the movie shifts into what would become an infamous sequence of U.S. soldiers invading the Normandy beaches on D-Day. While very little of the screen time shows Tom Hanks in the role of Captain Miller, what we do see sets the tone not just for the film but his emotional arc as well. Miller’s emotional stability under pressure and willingness to sacrifice himself for his comrades is seen throughout the sequence as the troops land ashore and fight to get to a place where they are not under fire. On the screen, it is an epic battle and on the page Robert Rodat wrote an even more compelling emotional arc that you can read here.
Young Frankenstein: Dr. Frankenstein
Written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder
No one does anger in a comedy like Gene Wilder, I must say. Dr. Frankenstein probably went into work that day thinking he would get the typical applause his ego so greatly craves, only to have his biggest insecurity challenged and his anger issues taking over, culminating with a scalpel to the thigh. Love it.
Thelma and Louise: Thelma and Louise
Written by Callie Khouri
Who doesn’t love a female buddy movie? This may be the most famous of them all with Callie Khouri setting a high bar for writers to try and match. Thelma is timid, insecure, and starving for some adventure, Louise is independent and dedicated to her best friend. One phone call and we have all we need to understand the relationship of these dual protagonists.
The Lego Movie: Emmet Brickowoski
Written by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
A whole sequence of someone following the rules! I love it. Everything IS awesome. Yes, yes, this movie’s central theme is about allowing for creativity and standing out as an individual while discovering who you are. My personal obsession with rule-following is my own, but it does not stop me from loving this amazing script (particularly this awesome opening) and how this entire script is structurally perfect as it follows traditional screenwriting rules.
The Apartment : C.C. Baxter
Written by Billy Wilder
C.C. Baxter is weak. It has put him in a terrible predicament as his work life infiltrates his home life, but we love C.C. Baxter. He is so sweet and only wants to make everyone around him happy. How can we not root for him even as he assists his bosses in cheating on their wives? It is hard to pull that combination off, but Billy Wilder is a master and this script is often ranked as one of the greatest of all time for a reason.
What are your favorite protagonist introductions in film? Let us know in the comments below!
And if you have any great protagonist introductions of your own in your scripts, enter them in ScreenCraft's Genre Contests.
Emily Jermusyk is a screenwriter and story consultant. She got her start in high school writing over 150 episodes of a soap opera parodying Knots Landing. If desired, Emily will talk to you at potentially-annoying-length about topics such as why the CW is her favorite channel, the current amazing state of underground comedy, and how she avoids TV/films about zombies because most of them do not chew with their mouths closed. Follow Emily on Twitter, and check out her website, Ruining Television.