Make Your Characters Distinct
In the outstanding film HIDDEN FIGURES, screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi faced the formidable task of immediately introducing their three major characters, and making them unique and memorable. All three are African American women about the same age, and all three are scientists working at NASA.
So take a close look at this opening sequence:
Terrific, isn’t it?
No. It’s not.
The first paragraph does a good job of drawing us into the setting. And it actually is from Schroeder and Melfi’s screenplay for HIDDEN FIGURES.
The second scene I made up, to show you how NOT to introduce characters – regardless of whether your story is a script, a novel, a speech, an email or a webinar.
Besides the fact that this lame introduction gives no description of the characters beyond age and race, and includes something the audience wouldn’t know from watching the screen (that they work at NASA), it also fails to make them distinct. Any readers of such a passage would have no way of recognizing – or remembering – which character was which as the read further in the script.
So let’s look at what the screenwriters DID do to make certain readers and audiences would know right away who each character is….
First of all, Schroeder and Melfi don’t introduce all three in the same paragraph – a sure way to confuse your readers and audiences. So Katherine has already been introduced in a prologue as a young math prodigy being enrolled in a new school appropriate for her genius.
This establishes Katherine as the hero of the film. Even though Dorothy and Mary are critical to the story, neither is given her own separate introduction, indicating that Katherine is the central protagonist.
The prologue also shows Katherine imagining patterns and geometric figures as she gazes out windows, indicating she is a bit withdrawn, escaping from the real world into the world of mathematics. When we then meet her as an adult, she is again staring out the window and up into space, until her reverie is broken by Dorothy’s voice from outside the car.
The screenplay then reads:
I am generally a stickler for avoiding any screenplay description that the audience of a film won’t know from watching the screen. But I can forgive this instance because it tells the actor how to play the character, it will be immediately illustrated in this sequence, and it clearly contrasts her pragmatic, get-the-job-done personality with that of the daydreaming Katherine.
Now the screenplay introduces us to Mary:
So now we have a third character, quite different from Katherine or Dorothy. Mary is not just a beauty; we sense her looks and the impression she makes is important to her, because we first see her as she’s putting on makeup. She also carries an air (or at least a façade) of slight superiority and defiance.
Now that these three women have been introduced, their different personalities are reinforced, and our empathy for them greatly strengthened, with the appearance of the white cop.
Just then, far in the distance, Mary sees a police car coming over the hill…
So Dorothy is calm, strong and pragmatic, Mary is defiant, Katherine just wants to avoid conflict.
These qualities are then reinforced throughout the interaction with the cop. He accuses Mary of being disrespectful, and she has to back down. He asks for identification and Katherine “jumps in” (in the words of the script) and says, “We sure do. We’re on our way to work. At Langley.” She wants to smooth things over and make certain they can get to work.
And when the white cop says, “NASA. That’s somethin’. Had no idea they hired –,” here’s how the script reads:
He stops himself from saying “coloreds.” Or worse.
She saves him the embarrassment.
In just three script pages, we have met three major – and memorable – characters, we get a clear picture of their personalities, and we won’t have any problem keeping them distinct in our minds, even in script form, where there are no actresses to show their differences in appearance.
Of course, this opening does far more than just introduce characters effectively. It lays out what will be the essential conflict in the story, and the inner journeys they will take.
In spite of their brilliance and uniqueness, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary will repeatedly have to accommodate – and be subjected to – an environment where to a great extent it IS a “crime to be Negro.”
Each in her own way, these three heroic women will have to find the courage to stand up to a bureaucracy, and a society, that wants to crush their talent, and their dreams, just because of their race and gender. And by doing so, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary will not only find their own destinies, they will change the world.
When you begin your own stories using the principles that HIDDEN FIGURES does, and you make your own characters as distinct and memorable, you, too, can touch your readers and audiences more deeply and powerfully.
Some really great points from a really great movie! And yes, the characters really make this movie fly!
Great Article. Great insights. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
I’ve just discovered your brilliant work via CS Lakin (another amazing author and resource for writing), and am thoroughly enjoying going back through all your articles. I felt compelled to comment today as Hidden Figures is a brilliant movie and now I know one of the reasons why!
Thank you for all your wisdom and insights!
So pleased to have found this site. Am working on my first screen play, and boy, its not easy. after reading this article am convinced the road to completion will be a little easier. Your knowledge, patience and giving spirit shines through. Am adding your site to my favorites list for future reference.
Remain blessed and good,
I love your treatment of this scene especially after seeing the movie (several times). It helps me to now see it as a writer and storyteller versus a spectator.
Brilliant advice, Michael. God bless you.
Thank you so much for this fantastic article, Michael!
Wow, awesome Michael. I’ve been trying to watch this movie for the longest time. I’ve been wrestling with concept notes for a long time. Since I last spoke with you Michael about over 2 years ago I’ve been wanting to start my consultations with you but couldn’t. Now for the past week I’ve been prepsrng myself to just start the process and register. And miraculously my most favourite coach, and movie is infront of me in the same space, at the same time, world’s apart and becomes the canvas on which I begin to paint the pictures on the backdrop you just created with this awesome article Michael. Thank you.
Whoa, how did this jump to 19 comments in just 1 day (well, 20 now)
Great article Michael. Thanks so much from your insight and how you help me to better understand how to make my characters memorable.
Looking forward to read more.
You’ve got one fan from Reunion Island (a little island in the indien ocean) but I always stay tuned…I dream to fly to USA and assist at one of your seminar.
Lovely, I love your work Michael. This is enlightening
Great article Michael, hello from Adelaide ! Great example of drawing audience in, differentiating character and starting the tension of drama ! Loved it . I meet up with the word Ninja’s – Ruth and Pete this week and we spoke about you, your book and your great seminar in Adelaide. Keep the articles coming ! Any plans to get back to Oz? 🙂
Thanks a ton sir…very helpful indeed….
Do we need give details or brief of any inner conflict if any at the introduction??
Thank you, Michael! This is gold. You’ve reassured me of some techniques that I just put into use in my current script. Thank you for being such an invaluable resource of wisdom!
Peace and Blessings!
Hey Micheal I love everything you have written regarding story and writing stories. I want to know if you will teach classes in London in future or do private lessons . I am also working on a screenplay but I am working on the idea . I am trying to write a outline of the movie now . But need feed back on the story . Is there any way paying you to read and analyse my work or you have some online classes to I can take.
Fero Kalo on Facebook
I just realized how many times I have read your articles and never commented – which is stupid – I don’t know why I do that. And if I do that, there are most likely hundreds of others who never comment. Anyways, I’m commenting now to say thanks for this post. It very clearly demonstrates a great use of character definition in an economical way. Thank you!
Brilliant, as always! And you’re just as lucid and descriptive in your videos. I’m learning a lot, thank you!
Thank you for the article, Michael.
This script uses “we” referring to the viewer. Some screenwriting books and instructors advise against this device for spec screenplays, recommending third person, present tense for action and scene description. Your comments please?
Great article. Thank you 🙂
This was exactly what I needed when I needed it.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfectly scripted.
(a very old dog trying to learn some new tricks)
Awesome, as always. Hope to see you back in New Zealand one day. Cheryl from the Spa Girls.
One other thing not explicitly touched on is that this introduces them in the middle of an ACTION. The broken down car is a great scene idea to introduce them because it gives all three an active goal within the scene, while simultaneously setting up their different personalities and the themes of the story.
Them being women and black is crucial, of course, but in general screenplay logistics, it seems smart to also choose an interesting and ACTIVE scenario that can engage the characters in some sort of business or goal.
In other words, they’re actually doing something, which many screenplays seem to forget to include.
Great article, Michael. As always. And, again, I am impressed by your insights and attention to subtle detail.
See you soon,
Love your work Michael!
Love this! And I can put it to immediate use. My new novel opens with three different women and–I’m not making this up–I was struggling to make them different without an info-dump. Thanks, Michael. Once again a terrific post.
Mark, Renae, Patricia and Daniel –
Thank you all for your immediate, and very kind, responses. I’m glad you find the article helpful, and Daniel, we’ll be eager to hear how your 3-character opening develops.