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One of the best ways to introduce a character is to show the character doing something that defines him or her as clearly as possible.

The Godfather begins during the wedding of the Godfather’s daughter — but he’s not at the wedding. He’s holding court in his office. This introduction reveals not just that he’s powerful but that his power is the center of his life, more important than even his daughter’s wedding.

Ariel in The Little Mermaid first appears by not appearing: She’s missed her royal concert debut because she’s hunting curios from the world of dry land. Her fascination with that world and its people will lead to everything that happens to her throughout the rest of the movie.

The Wizard of Oz begins with Dorothy Gale on a farm in Kansas, almost immediately wishing that she were somewhere more enjoyable. The same is true with Star Wars: right after we meet Luke Skywalker, he complains that he wants to get far from his own dusty farm and into a life more interesting. Gone with the Wind reveals Scarlett O’Hara’s frivolous immaturity in her dismissing matters as serious as civil war: “This war talk’s spoiling the fun of every party this spring!” Citizen Kane begins with the wealthy Charles Foster Kane in his luxurious estate with one word on his lips and his mind: “Rosebud.” In Hamlet, the main character’s first words are “A little more than kin, and less than kind” — a show of his resentment toward his uncle, the emotion that drives his actions throughout the play.

This pattern applies to every character, not just the protagonist. Show each character doing something that reveals the character’s most central urge or habit or feeling, and you’ll help the audience know who your characters are. And you’ll help yourself, too.

Yours,

The Grumpy Editor

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