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:

We float down towards a lone stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. Infinity in all directions.
KATHERINE GOBLE (38), DOROTHY VAUGHAN (40s) and MARY JACKSON are inside the car, driving to their jobs at NASA. All three are African American.

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also shows Katherine imagining patterns and geometric figures as she gazes out windows, indicating she is a bit withdrawn, escaping from the real world into the world of mathematics.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:

DOROTHY VAUGHAN slides out from under the car. No-nonsense, brilliant, tough, mechanically gifted.

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:

At the back of the car, sitting on the trunk, we find MARY JACKSON (30ish) putting on lipstick. Mary’s a spirited beauty, free-tongued, unbridled.
Katherine!? Quit starting off into space! Turn the damn car over!
Mary bangs on the rear window. Katherine snaps out of her trance.

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…

Dorothy and Katherine look. See the car coming up fast.
No crime in a broken down car.
No crime being Negro either.
Button it up, Mary. No one wants to go to jail behind your mouth.

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.

There are quite a few women working in the Space Program, sir.

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.