A number of on-line friends have suggested a Netflix series called Stranger Things. I tried it, and shut it off after about fifteen minutes. The main reason was that in that time I didn’t meet any characters that I particularly wanted to spend time with.
The problem was in how the characters were introduced, and that’s an issue that I find with a lot of modern stories, film, and television. Somewhere along the line writers got the idea that characters should be introduced at an unguarded, spontaneous moment. I can understand the reasoning behind it, but I don’t think I like it in practice.
In Stranger Things the very first character we see is running along a corridor in a panic, trying to get on an elevator at the end of the hallway. We don’t expect him to survive very long, and he doesn’t. We’re given no information about who he is, what is chasing him, and why we should care if it gets him or not.
Moving on to the next scene, we see a group of kids who are supposed to be playing D&D, but all that happens is that the DM gives a moderately creepy speech and then sets a figure down on the table, at which point all of the players say, “We’re dead” and give up.
Then the DM’s mother yells down the stairs and tells everyone to leave.
One of the kids gets home to find no one there, and then something gets him, which may or may not have been the thing that got the unnamed guy in the elevator in the first scene.
Then we see the missing kid’s mother and older brother having an argument over breakfast, interspaced with some man who wakes up on the couch and takes a shower.
Now, some or all of these characters might be decent people, but it seems to me that the writers went out of their way to introduce them to the audience at the worst possible time.
I don’t get that. For me, the most important part of any story is the people that it happens to. As a writer, I want my audience to form a relationship with my characters. I consider a character’s first appearance to be comparable to a first date with the audience, or a job interview, or a sales call. I want to give my characters every advantage and bring them onstage on their best behavior, well dressed, and in a positive frame of mind.
There will be plenty of time to reveal flaws and imperfections later–but only if the audience sticks around. And I, personally, won’t be staying long if what I first see is a family fight or a man arising from a drunken stupor. Let me see what the character would want a stranger to see first, then I will have a reason to care about whatever dark depths are underneath.