foreWe all make judgments based off of first impressions, and this fact is true not only for real life but also in fiction. The first glimpse a reader catches of your character should be engineered to reveal the core of your character’s personality. We’re going to first examine the Fantastic Four (2005) movie to see how this snapshot technique is used before learning how we can apply this technique to our own writing.
Victor Von Doom
We first get an outside perspective of Victor from the other characters. They’re observing a 30-foot statue of Victor being built. Their opening remarks hint at Victor’s personality and their relationship with him.
Ben: “Typical of Victor Von Doom to build a 30-foot statue of himself.”
Reed: “Victor isn’t that bad. He’s just a little… larger than life.”
And then we get to meet Victor himself.
“But dreams don’t pay the bills, do they?”
The music itself even hints at his character. As Reed is outlining his plan to study a cosmic storm in order to help people, Victor interrupts him, and the exciting violin music accompanying Reed’s dream halts.
In our very first glimpse of Reed, we see him trying to persuade Victor to help him study the cosmic storm to understand the structure of the human genome, enabling them to “cure countless diseases, extend human life, give kids a chance to live longer, stronger, healthier—”
Victor interrupts him, bringing up the fact that Reed is bankrupt. “Same old Reed—always stretching (ha!), reaching for the stars with the weight of the world on his back.”
Though it’s said mockingly, we get the idea the Reed is a dreamer. He’s selfless, he’s kind, and we’re instantly invested in his venture.
This also hints that Reed and Victor have some sort of history. This is confirmed by the appearance of:
Susan’s entrance is accompanied by the wistful, bell-like tones of a vibraphone, and Victor introduces her as his director of genetic research.
Ben: “One more thing he’s got.”
After Susan greets Ben with a warm hug and Reed with a cool handshake, Victor asks,
“This isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”
Susan and Reed instantly reply with a “No.”
Victor: “Good. Then you’re just in time to hear the great Reed Richards ask me for help.”
To further rub it in Reed’s face, Victor wraps an arm around Susan.
There’s definitely some history there. We get another hint of their history on their elevator ride. Susan offers Reed her business card, telling him to call her in the morning to get an update on the schedule of the launch, so they can study the cosmic storm.
Victor: “I think I remember the number.”
Susan replies with a cool smile, “It’s been changed.”
Ben accompanies Reed throughout the interchange between him and Victor. From his comments, we get the feeling Ben is a bit more cautious and less optimistic than Reed. He doesn’t trust Victor in the slightest and is often slightly blunt. At one point, Susan asks him, “How’s Deb?” which is a very important relationship that comes into play later on.
We’re about five minutes into the movie, and we already have the hero, villain, love interest, and sidekick introduced. The characters are already hurtling towards the First Plot Point, and there’s only one more person left to join them.
Rock music breaks into the quiet elevator scene, and we see Johnny kissing a woman. While riding a motorcycle next to her speeding car. That quick snapshot reveals his craving for thrills and women.
So what can Fantastic Four teach us about opening scenes?
The opening is efficient. Right off the bat, we’re given several characters, their personalities, relationships, and the stakes. You could say the real story begins when they get super powers, so why not start there? Because we wouldn’t care. We wouldn’t see Victor’s conceit and greed, Reed’s mounting debt and selflessness, the history with Susan, or Ben’s protectiveness and loyalty. Before all the exciting explosions and action can happen, the viewer/reader must be invested in the character. By having a handful of minutes before the cosmic storm alters their lives, we have a chance to admire and care about the characters.
But if you don’t open with a BOOM or a BANG, then how are you going to draw the reader’s interest? All you need to do is hint at the action to come. The anticipation of the reward is supposed to be better than the reward itself (according to neurobiology), so if you give the reader a smattering of action right as the story opens, you’re actually depriving them of some of the reward.
For example, the beginning of Fantastic Four hints that there will be a mission into space to study a cosmic storm. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, if you can open with an action-packed scene that makes the reader care about the character, use it, but keep in mind that if the action is simply foreshadowed, it’s just as effective if not more so.
The focal point of the opening scenes we see in Fantastic Four is definitely the characters. Each has their moment to shine in which we get a glimpse into their personality and beliefs. When piecing together your characteristic moment, look at the core of your character and their preferences. If they would be doing any activity, what would they be doing? What outfit would best summarize their personality? Who are they with?
Brainstorm ways to make this scene pop. For example, the producers could have had Johnny’s scene open with him kissing a woman. Or riding a motorcycle. But by doing both, they really highlighted his character and gave him an unforgettable opening scene.
Now, introducing your main character is a slightly different story. While it’s okay for Victor to be arrogant and greedy, it would turn us off if Reed acted the same way. Even if your main character really is unlikable, give readers something to admire about them. For ideas, look at the strengths of his/her personality and see how those could appear in your main character’s opening scene. (The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes is a very helpful resource for this.)
In Fantastic Four, we see Reed is optimistic and positive, refusing to say anything negative about Victor. He has a passion for helping people and will go to whatever lengths it takes to save lives, even if it means shortchanging himself.
Something I did find particularly lacking in Fantastic Four’s opening scene was the characters’ Lie. Of course, we know a few of the characters believe things that aren’t true (money is more important than helping people), but the only prominent character arc I can see is Ben’s, and that starts only after he has his powers. I think this approach worked well for the movie, but in general, you’ll want to hint at your character’s lie and their arc in the beginning of the story. You want to give the readers a “before” scene to contrast with your “after” scene later in the book, if you really want to drive home how much your character has changed over the course of the story.
You’ve seen how opening scenes are done in Fantastic Four, so now it’s your turn. If your character could be doing anything with anyone at anytime, what would they be doing? Who would they be with? And when would this be?
Images from Fantastic Four (2005)