It would be cliché for me to open with the phrase “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” so I will instead stretch my brain back to my Biology 101 class to invoke Konrad Lorenz and his imprinted geese. The long and the short of it is, Lorenz realized that geese will imprint on the first moving thing they see and assume it is their mother. This would occur during a “critical period” within the first hours of their lives, and would be irreversible once established.
Mind you, we’re a lot more advanced than the geese Lorenz studied, yet audiences also experience a critical period when introducing characters, which was important enough of a concept to Blake Snyder that he named his book after it. Because this period is so important, after you’ve put in your time designing your characters by making them compelling and Myers Briggs them, you need to think long and hard as to how you’re going to get all this across. Because you only get one shot at hitting that critical period… which I guess is pretty much me rephrasing the “first impression” idiom, but I digress.
Forget about that digression and let's look at Lorenz and his brainwashed geese instead.
Basically, you’re going to want to cut straight to the core concept of your character and demonstrate what makes them important to the story in their first appearance. This included their ROLE (protagonist/ antagonist), APPEARANCE (gender/ age/ species, etc.), SKILLS (occupation, abilities, etc.), PERSONALITY (self explanatory?), DESIRES (and goals for that matter), WEAKNESS (to establish how they’re going to grow over their arc), and pretty much anything that’s going to be salient to the story as a whole.
Sounds daunting, don’t it? Well, it gets more difficult in that you also have to DEMONSTRATE this character’s core concept within his/ her first sequence (and preferably scene). This is a textbook application of the “show don’t tell” rule, so if you’ve got a brash gambler who’s recently been crippled by alcoholism, the first time we see him in the story it needs to be in the midst of the game to establish his skills/ ability as we see him being brash to create his personality, before drinking himself into a stupor and losing it all.
Yeah, that does sound like a lot for just a single scene, but fear not: Introducing characters this way is so commonplace you probably don’t even recognize it when it happens. Which is why I’m going to give you several examples of this occurring in the original Star Wars.
In probably one of the most iconic introductions ever, Darth Vader is absolutely terrifying in his best Johnny Cash Man-in-Black impression, especially when contrasted with the all-white Storm Troopers, which just goes to show he’s special. By their deference we know he’s definitely in charge, and by his indifference to the corpses we know he don’t mind killing. Add to that his next scene where he’s strangling/ holding a man aloft with one hand before killing him, and we know he’s a villain not to be trifled with.
We do actually see them before Vader, and their little run across the corridor in the previous clip again perfectly encapsulates them in that we see the capable R2 bravely leading the charge as the doubting 3PO tags along. Plus, you know, comedy relief.
Yeah, the first time we actually see her she’s passing on the plans, then shooting down some Storm Troopers, which establishes how capable she is, but it’s this second sequence that really boils down her character. Yeah, it’s a little exposition-heavy, but she’s clearly not intimidated by Vader as she insults him, which gives us her imperious personality, and her role/ occupation as both a senator and rebel spy.
I’m not including a clip on this one, not just because it’s not great at making my point, but because I can’t easily find one and I’m lazy. But, if memory holds true, we see him both whining to and bristling under his uncle’s yolk. Before complaining to the droids about how he wants to get out of there and adventure that is, which demonstrates his personality and desires at least. Oh, and weakness. Because, let’s all be honest here, Luke’s pretty annoying for 64.368784% of this movie.
Obi Wan Kenobi
This one’s a little tricky in that Obi Wan fakes us out by seeming intimidating to scare away the Sand People. But then he immediately becomes the kindly mentor character he’s meant to be as he rescues Luke before going full-on exposition bot in explaining the Force, the Jedi, Luke’s father and their upcoming mission.
Nowhere is this critical period at introducing a character more apparent than in everyone’s favorite smuggler. Mind you, we do get a brief introduction to Han before the provided clip where he’s haggling for his services as a smuggler (occupation) where he also brags about his ship (arrogance and skills). We also see how he’s motivated by money rather than what’s right, which shows the scoundrel his is perfectly.
But, in his defining moment with Greedo, we see Han at his most basic and true to his character: A dangerous man on the run who’s willing to try to talk his way out of a tricky situation, but also one who doesn’t even blink when it comes to straight-up executing a bounty hunter when his charm fails him. This is Han’s character distilled down to its purest, and the proof comes from the outrage at the “remastered” version where Greedo shoots first. The reasoning behind this change makes sense in that they were trying to justify Han’s cold-blooded execution (Star Wars is aimed at kids after all), but the backlash was so swift and savage because Lucas was messing with Han’s defining critical period. We had grown up with this being Han’s defining moment, which made it sacrosanct and altering it in any form akin to a sin.
At least that’s my theory. And yes, I did own a Han Shot First shirt. The classic design, yo.