One day, in the not so distant past, I was talking to Mara about a character of mine. I told her that I wanted my character to enter the story by falling out of a tree. ‘A tree?’ She had asked me. She went on to question why I wanted this to happen. And…I didn’t have a good answer to that question. I had just wanted to find a way to get my character into the plot, and I wasn’t thinking about how that would affect the way the other characters, and the readers, would view my character from that point on.
Since then, I have learned a thing or two about character entrances. And it turns out, they’re way more important than I thought. A character entrance has to make a good impression on the reader because it determines how they’re viewed for the rest of the story. If my character would’ve fallen out of that tree like I had planned, she would’ve been seen as clumsy and comedic to the readers, not cool and confident as I wanted her to seem. Though I may not be the best at coming up with my character’s first impressions, I’d like to showcase a piece of film that does these splendidly.
In The Heights
Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights is a master at first impressions. This musical has an insanely large cast of characters, most of which get introduced within the first eight minutes of the film. However, even with all of these rapid fire introductions, the characters never blur together. Each character has their own unique personality that is instantly seen the second they walk into the room. There are so many people involved with this plot, yet each person stands out from the others. And, whether you’re introducing one character or one-hundred characters, there’s a way you can do this too.
In The Heights follows a man named Usnavi who lives in Washington Heights, New York City and runs a small corner store with his cousin, Sonny. Though he has a fairly good life, he’s not content there. More than anything, he wishes to go back home to his beloved Dominican Republic, the place he immigrated from as a child. He narrates all of this to the viewer in the first song of the musical, and simultaneously introduces all the people in the neighborhood who frequently visit his store. Today, I’m going to quickly talk about each of these individuals just as Usnavi does, and point out how each one was kept unique and memorable along the way.
After Usnavi’s store opens, the first one to walk through the doors is Abuela, who is described as the neighborhood grandmother. She gives a friendly ‘yoo-hoo!’ as she walks in and then immediately gives Usnavi a motherly tip about the milk that spoiled in the fridge. She says what later comes to be her catchphrase: Paciencia Y Fe! (Meaning: patience and faith) And then exits the store.
With a hearty, “Good Morning, Usnavi!” Kevin Rosario saunters into the store next. Usnavi tells the audience that he owns a cab company down the street, and that his daughter Nina is off at college, which means he has to work extra hard nowadays. He comes in, grabs a coffee, spends an extra amount of money on a lottery ticket, and they quickly makes his exit, leaving another impression on the viewer. The way Kevin walked, talked and dressed just screamed: rich. Though he’s not a millionaire, he’s one of the wealthiest folks in the neighborhood. And all of that could be picked up in the short minute of screen time that he got.
The Salon Ladies
The second Kevin is gone, three women with a heavy load of makeup and fashionable hand bags bustle into the store. They walk in like they own the place, and they’re so caught up in their own gossiping, they don’t even bother to say hi to Usnavi. They talk (or rather, they sing) some news about their friends, chirp “Thanks Usnavi!” in unison and then head right back out the door.
After Usnavi narrates about his life in the neighborhood a little more, another character comes through the door, and once again: they don’t say hi. But this time, for a completely different reason. This man bursts through the door with some friendly teasing, and Usnavi immediately responds by shouting ‘Benny!’ showing that they’re good enough friends to not need a formal hello. Benny opens his mouth to ask for his usual order of coffee and a candy bar, but Usnavi and Sonny interrupt him and finish his sentence for him, handing him exactly what he wanted.
Benny continues to tease Usnavi, both for not excelling in the working world and for not being skilled when it comes to flirting with girls. They joke around with each other for a bit until…
Suddenly, a girl with snakeskin boots and a snazzy outfit comes into the store, a phone pressed to her ear as she belts into the speaker. When she puts down the phone, Benny encourages Usnavi to talk to her, snickering all the while. Usnavi and Vanessa have a slightly awkward conversation, ending with Vanessa walking away as Usnavi stares after her romantically.
Every Little Detail Matters
Each of these characters were memorable and really stuck to the viewer’s mind. To do that with your characters, you have to do one crucial thing: Make every little detail count. Write down how your character walks, talks and act around other people. Make sure that all of their actions absolutely screams out they’re personality. Don’t say ‘the girl was shy’ but describe her quiet voice, her awkward body language, and how she avoids eye contact. Don’t just throw them into the story without a second thought either, otherwise your reader will get the wrong impression of them, and they’ll be confused when that character acts differently later on.
With In The Heights everyone acts the same way they did in the first eight minutes of the film. Kevin still acts rich, Benny’s still close friends with Usnavi, Vanessa still rocks her fashionable outfits, the Salon ladies still gossip, and the Abuela is still as sweet as ever. Sure they have character development, but their motif stays the same throughout the entire movie, and the viewer was able to get a good understanding of that core all because the writers took their time and pondered the details.
So, when writing character introductions, don’t rush them! Don’t slap some words down and hope it’s good enough. Don’t have your character fall out of a tree just because it’d be fun. Though the interaction may only be a brief moment, it makes a big impression on the reader. Take your time, map out every detail, let their personality shine, and each character will be unforgettable.
Let us know in the comments section: How do you plan to introduce your protagonist? Will they seem shy or confident? Happy or sad? What are some creative ways you can express the characters emotions and personality? How was this article? Too sour? Too sweet? Just right?
Hello, I’m Sophia! I’m a child of God and I (if you couldn’t tell already) love to write! I’m also a total theater kid and strong dessert (specifically cupcake) enthusiast. For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed both reading and making my own stories. I’m so glad I get to share with you what I’ve learned from some of my favorite (or sometimes least favorite) stories on this blog.