SCRIPT WRITING: How to introduce your main character.

In screenwriting, you’ve only got the first 10 to 15 pages to make people care about your hero. Make them count! #screenwriting #amwriting #storiesbyphil #writerforhire


On a recent day off, I realized I had a problem – I had two movie vouchers that were about to expire, but a glance at my Flixster app revealed there wasn’t much on that was worth seeing. What’s a script writing cinemaphile to do? Loath to waste the vouchers, I went for the two best rated films I hadn’t seen yet. Their ratings weren’t high, but I figured, hey, sometimes everybody else is wrong and I’m right, right?

Well, kiss my grits! Everybody else was right.


character intro - low ratingsThere was plenty wrong with both films, but I’m not here to bash the blood, sweat and tears of fellow filmmakers. Instead, I want to muse in general on a critical part of screenwriting that I think could have been done better.  To that end, I will talk about the beginning.

The first 10 minutes of a screenplay (and thus a film) is the most critical part of the whole enchilada. This is where the everyday life of a hero is revealed. This is their world. The writer is inviting the audience in to have a look around… and to give a shit. To care. To get emotionally invested in the hero before their world is turned upside down by events in the film.character intro - first 10 minutes

Have you ever walked into/ turned on a movie more than 10 or 15 minutes into it? Bet you felt lost, huh? Of course you did. I bet you didn’t really end up caring that much about the hero, even if there were specials effects and boobs.

What about walking OUT of/ turning off a movie after 10 or 15 minutes? Ever done that? Bet you did it for the same reason: you just didn’t care about the hero.

character intro - inciting incidentUsually around that point in a film is when the crapola hits the fan. Something big happens to the hero and they end up spending the rest of the film trying to make things hunky-dory again. If the writer hasn’t done their job properly – or if you missed the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film – you won’t really care. Oh, you might care on some kind of primal level (gee, I hope that baby doesn’t die) but you won’t understand the beating heart of the story that was setup (or was supposed to have been setup) in those vital first minutes/ pages.

Screenplays and films that do succeed in making you care by that point are the ones you can watch over and over again. The ones that win awards and people talk about many years later.

This terrific video by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) reveals how Pixar does it:


Listed below are a few examples of what some great movies/ tv shows did to introduce their heroes. Maybe it’ll give you an idea of some of the things a writer needs to do to capture the hearts of their audience.

Breaking Bad – Walter is left out in the desert in his broken down caravan dressed in his underwear. We see how he’s passionate about his job and loves his wife and handicapped son. That’s when he gets hit with the news he has cancer. By then we like him, so WE CARE.

Gladiator – Maximus is liked by his soldiers for being a skilled general who cares about and inspires them. He is liked by the emperor’s daughter and makes the emperor’s son jealous. He misses his family and keeps wooden carvings of their likeness. Then he’s betrayed and must flee for his life. WE CARE.character intro - classic movie 2

Casablanca – Rick is the owner of the hottest café in town. People want to know him. Women want to sleep with him. He says he “sticks his neck out for no one”, but he has a warm relationship with his black piano player and helps a young couple desperate for money to win at his casino. Then the old girlfriend who dumped him walks into the bar. WE CARE.

Rocky – He’s a blue-collar everyman, struggling to get by. He gets his face bashed in boxing for nickels, but he loves it and he’s pretty good at it. He collects debts to pay his own bills but doesn’t like being the bad guy. He has a crush on nerdy girl at the local pet store and he loves dogs and turtles. He’s such an underdog, that when the world champ gives him a shot, WE CARE.

The Godfather – Vito Corleone holds a lavish party for his daughter’s wedding. He is feared and respected by all who seek his favors. He holds loyalty above all else and rewards those who show him the same. His love for his family and his status in life makes us (God help us) CARE. Oh, and he likes his cat. So he can’t be all bad, right? (*choking on fur ball)

character intro - classic movFor some in-depth tips on how to create great characters like these, I recommend having a look at Michael Hauge’s book “Writing Screenplays that Sell”. You can read it online here:

After reading the examples I’ve given above, the techniques in Chapter 3 – Character Development – will make more sense. They’ll definitely get you excited about making your own characters come alive.

SCRIPT WRITING: Is your hero too perfect?


I’ve seen The Martian twice now. The first time I really liked it. Gave it a 8.5/10

The second time, I liked it, but not as much. Gave it a 7.5/10

And now, looking into the future I’m wondering… will this be one of those films I watch again and again?

This is coming from a guy who has watched other films, like Aliens, probably 15 times over the years and will watch it once a year till the end of time.

Both films have smart heroes doing smart things trying to survive and outwit something that is trying to kill them. They’re ultimately survival stories, primal in their universal appeal to an audience. But The Martian is not grabbing me the way Aliens did. Why is that?


What made The Martian a lot of fun the first time – besides the great VFX and cinematography – was watching a really smart guy figure out really smart ways storiesbyphil on martians 1to outsmart death. It was like watching an interplanetary episode of CSI, except in this show the investigator dies if he doesn’t solve the puzzle. It was definitely a cinematic version of ‘competence porn’.

But I liked it less the second time because the hero’s struggle lacked an emotional component beyond just that need for survival. Once I knew how he solved all of his problems, I lost a bit of interest. He didn’t seem to have a flaw that would prevent him from reaching his goal and thus increase the drama and the emotional stakes  He was almost too good at everything.

aliens sci fi screenwriting 2With Aliens, despite knowing every second of the film, I keep coming back to it because it makes me feel something extra. Why? Because I admire Ripley’s courage and heart. She has to overcome her instinct for self-preservation and go out on a limb to help others. Mark Watley, the hero of The Martian, is courageous in the face of death but he mainly just cares about his own survival. He’s alone, so that’s fair enough. But we’re never given a real chance to connect with who this guy is on the inside.

The humans back on Earth care about him, but does that mean I’m supposed to see humanity as the hero? Because they care about something other than themselves? The old US Marines’ credo of “no man gets left behind”? Yeah, ok, that made me care about him too. It did make me feel like, “I AM that guy! Come save me!” But ‘humanity’ is such a large (and ironically) impersonal concept to cast as your hero. I need something smaller, more identifiable and emotional to help me connect with a protagonist.

In Tom Hanks’ movie Castaway – another survival story – at least the hero has his anthropomorphized volleyball ‘Wilson’ to care about (though I never felt the need towilson screenwriting storiesbyphil watch that movie again). Same goes for Cruise in MI5: Rogue Nation: he didn’t have an inner flaw but he had people close to him – the girl and Simon Pegg – to care about, so we cared about him.


The fact that Matt Damon’s character in The Martian didn’t have a flaw didn’t bother me the first time. The film put me in his shoes. I cared because I WAS him, struggling to survive out there all alone. I just liked it less the second time BECAUSE he didn’t have a flaw and I knew all of his smarty pants tricks. I wouldn’t bother watching a CSI episode twice for the same reason.

martians sci fi screenwriting 3In the end though, is it relevant to talk about the effect a movie has on you the second time? Shouldn’t initial reactions be enough? If you enjoyed it, you enjoyed it, right? Well, I have Aliens on Blu-Ray. I will probably get MI5, too. I doubt I will get The Martian.

Hey, I still enjoyed it. But I kinda wish I’d only seen it once. And yet I’m happy the filmmakers got me to buy two tickets. They deserve every penny.

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