Revealing Characters

First impressions are just as important in screenwriting as they are in life. A good screenplay needs a likable hero that gets trapped in a compelling situation; someone the reader can relate to and root for as they turn the pages of your script. How you go about introducing your hero is something that should be given a lot of thought. A helpful approach is to watch how directors introduce their main characters. Rather than introducing a hero, a good director will reveal the hero to the audience. The reveal usually tells us something important about the character right off the bat and alerts us to their significance. More often than not, the hero is revealed through some kind of action.

An excellent example of a reveal is John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian (1982). Anyone who has seen the film is unlikely to forget the “Wheel of Pain” sequence. Conan is introduced through a montage sequence that follows his torturous passage to manhood. A young Conan is chained to a punishing device and made to walk in circles through all seasons. As weaker men die Conan presses on. His muscles grow. We see his feet plod on as the years pass. Finally, the full grown Conan looks up and stares into the camera. He’s already a hero in our minds because he has survived an ordeal that finished off weaker men. He’s now ready to embark on any journey.

It’s generally best to reveal characters by having them doing something when we first meet them. The first glimpse we get is going to tell us almost everything we need to know about them. I call it a reveal because it should share something about both the inner and outer life of the hero.

Imagine your protagonist is a taxi driver. The scene opens inside the taxi dispatch. We see someone fastidiously cleaning a taxi at the start of their shift. A person who begins their shift in this way is probably honest, hard working and perhaps has dreams of doing something greater. This sounds a lot like the reveal from Collateral (Stuart Beattie, 2004).

  • ORANGE and YELLOW FORD CROWN VICTORIAS are wiping screen. We find ourselves in a busy garage at change of shift. A balletic convergence of arriving and departing cars. One’s door’s flung open…
  • enter. They wipe the seats with paper towels and 409…a DMV LICENSE fitted into the small Lexan holder. On it is a picture of Max.

    Lights being checked. Indicators. Hazards. Switches. Similar to a pilot doing an aircraft check list. Fast. All fine.

  • He opens it, preparing for his workday. CD caddy of personal mixes goes on a visor. Spreadsheet peaks out a worn Mercedes S500 brochure, clipped open. A submarine sandwich from Subway.
  • load-in. Southern California diversity – some unshaven, swapping stories, counting cash, one stands on the passenger seat to shout over the roof to his pal, spills his coffee, couldn’t care less…

    Not Max. His cab is fly. Among cabbies he is GQ.

    And as CAR HORNS BLARE. AD LIB BANTER. CABBIES SHOUT. Max gets behind the wheel, closes the door…

  • INT. CAB – DAY
  • …and WHAM! The noise evaporates. Welcome silence. Max takes a moment to savor it.

    He starts the engine. RAP MUSIC BLARES from the radio. Max turns it off.

    He dumps a CD into the changer. MOZART SONATA fills the cab.

    From the open briefcase, Max also pulls out one last thing…


    which depicts the whitest sand and bluest sea you can imagine. A dream place. An endorphin-releasing groove. Limitless horizon. It’s the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean.


    slips the postcard under the rubber bands on the visor. He can see it whenever he wants to. But not now. He flips the visor up, puts the car in gear and pulls out.

This script is an excellent example of a reveal. We are already able to empathize with the hero. He’s doing his best while still dreaming of something greater for himself. That’s something we can respect.

Reveals can be humorous, endearing and insightful all at the same time. Check out the classic reveal from Cool Hand Luke (Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, 1967):

  • FADE IN:
  • Its irritating head opens a glaring red eye: the red flag pops across the entire screen:
  • CLOSEUP of a pipe cutter attached to the meter neck, metal slivers curling out. From o.s. we HEAR — LUCAS JACKSON cheerfully humming and mumbling Auld Lang Syne and then:
  • LUKE
  • Okay, Mister General, you son of a bitch. Sir. Think you can put things right with a piece of tin with a ribbon hangin’ on it? Gonna put you right.
  • as the meter head falls out of FRAME.
  • as it falls to the ground amidst a forest of meter stands and Luke’s hand comes into the FRAME to pick it up and we SEE him in CLOSEUP for the first time. He is cheerful, drunk, wearing a faded GI Field jacket. A bottle opener hangs on a silver chain around his neck. He addresses the next meter.
  • LUKE
  • All right. Helen, honey. I lost my head over you. Now its your turn.

Today’s screenwriter generally pays a lot of attention to white space. The opening lines from Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007) reveals entire character personalities:

  • BEN STONE, 23, cute in a chunky Jewish guy sort of way, boxes one of his roommates, MARTIN. His other roommates, JAY and JASON fight with broom sticks. JONAH drinks beer on the couch spectating.

Half of the characters in this movie are set up in just a few lines. We already have a sense of who our hero is and what is in store for him. Taking into account the film’s title we already have a pretty good idea where this story is going.

When putting characters on the page for the first time, it’s not just important to describe them in a way that makes them memorable. You also need to reveal something about them. Show them at work or play in such a way that the reader can see much more than what’s on the page – their inner and outer lives intertwined.