Let me introduce myself.
One of the most rewarding exercises you can do to help work out who your characters are is to think about the first time we meet them.
It’s amazing how much information you can get across. I haven’t seen a James Bond film in oh, oh seven years or more, but remember it became a running gag in the Connery/Moore years. What would Bond be doing the first time we saw him in the latest movie?
And we think of meeting the villain for the first time as the key moment in any Bond movie. I bet it only happened once but it’s such an iconic moment I must have seen “villain revealing himself by swivelling round in a space-age chair and he’s stroking a furry cat” in hundreds of parodies or hommages.
I’ll be, therefore you
First impressions are the lasting ones we’re told. And sorry to bring this up again but yes, Friends. It begins with five 20something pals in a cafe moaning about their sex lives. Which is a huge amount of what Friends is about for the next 235 episodes. But then Rachel turns up in a wedding dress. As well as being a brilliant visual gag, it says “20something about to make big life decision changes her mind and wonders if she’s ready to settle down.” Marriage, she asks herself seconds before walking down the aisle, is that all there is?
Which is also a huge amount of what Friends is about for the next 235 episodes.
Apologies to readers outside the UK but great news! The Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock series is back on iPlayer and the opening ten minutes contain an exquisite masterclass in 1) introducing characters for the first time and 2) what happens when these two mismatched fellows meet for the first time.
Complicated my dear Watson
Let’s start with the pre-titles opening. The show is called Sherlock. It’s about Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous and celebrated fictional characters in the whole of English literature. Everyone knows Sherlock. What better way to start the show Sherlock about Sherlock Holmes than introduce… Dr Watson.
We learn simply by Sherlock’s absence that this remake is going to be different. Watson is an ex-soldier wounded in Afghanistan, suffering post traumatic stress disorder. This story is told, without words, for about a minute. We see him on duty, shot. He wakes from a nightmare, in mental anguish, alone, in a sparse room.
The only prominent thing in the room is a walking stick, which he eyes with hostility. He’s trying to articulate his pain by writing about it in a blog but the screen stays blank. His therapist finally reveals the backstory and urges him to write down everything that happened in order to help.
“Nothing happens to me” he says, inviting us to jeer “Liar!” or “Mate, you are so in denial.”
After the credits the next five minutes or so set up the week’s episode. We’re eight minutes in before we see Watson again but still no sign of Holmes. It’s a mystery! A friend suggests Watson look for someone to share a flat with. “Who would want to share a flat with me? I’m very difficult to live with.” Funnily enough, the friend says, you’re the second person to say that to me today. “Really? Who was the first?” Come on keep up, who do you bloody well think?
Cut to Sherlock. Head upside down, peering inside a body bag in a mortuary. Compare and contrast. Watson and Holmes. Silence and noise. Watson can’t speak, Holmes can’t shut up. Death is traumatic for Watson, thrilling for Holmes. Watson is super-serious, Holmes is hilarious. It’s taken eight minutes of this 80 minute episode to meet the title character. Moffat the master-storyteller holds off as long as he can and the reveal of Holmes is spectacular.
Almost immediately the two men meet. Holmes’s first words “Iraq or Afghanistan?” Holmes not only knows everything about Watson (in what’s almost a parody of the classic deer stalker Holmes and his powers of deduction) he knows Watson is the flatmate he’s been seeking and in less than a minute establishes they’ll be moving in together (oh and that his war injury is psychosomatic).
I highly recommend you watch those scenes, you can see how much of what is going to happen in this brilliant and groundbreaking series is introduced in those three short scenes. You’ll never write a boring introduction for a character again.