The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel PART 1, IRON MAN: GRAB READERS WITH A MULTI-FACETED CHARACTERISTIC MOMENT


Grab Readers With a Multi-Faceted Characteristic Moment

K.M Weiland

how to grab readers with a multi-faceted characteristic moment pinterestWant to write a character your audience will immediately go bananas for–and will remain passionately fanatical about after your first book comes out? Of course you do. And it all starts with introducing your protagonist in a killer characteristic moment.

The characteristic moment is your protagonist’s big debut. He steps onto the stage, the spotlight hits him–and he shines. In this one moment, he shows readers what he’s all about: the good, the bad, the potential for greatness to come. The characteristic moment tells readers shows readers exactly why this protagonist is going to be worth reading about.

Today, we’re going to take a look at how to ace not just a basic characteristic moment, but a multi-faceted character introduction that conveys all the most important info about your protagonist in one fell swoop.

But first…

Welcome to the Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel Series

In the wake of Captain America: Civil War, I’ve been re-watching the Marvel series and appreciating the overall scope of their storytelling vision even more than usual. Even better, I’ve been gleaning all kinds of interesting writing insights. This isn’t a perfect series, by any means, so we’re going to be looking at both the things Marvel aced (like Tony Stark’s characteristic moment) and the things they bombed on (be ye warned: the Age of Ultron post might be reeeeaallly long).

The series will be updated every Friday for the next couple months, featuring each movie in its chronological order. Which brings me right back to the beginning of the beginning and the characteristic moment that started it all…

How to Wow Readers With a Complex Characteristic Moment

As I talked about in its Story Structure Database analysis, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a study in excellent structure. This is a busy movie with nearly half a dozen plot elements running at the same time, and it handles them all perfectly thanks to complex structural moments that pull double and triple duty.

Billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist Tony’s intro is a great example.

Tony Stark Billionaire Genius Playboy Philanthropist

After the flashforward scene in Afghanistan, where Tony’s convoy is attacked and Tony is wounded and captured by terrorists, the narrative jumps back to properly present its protagonist to the audience.

We should note, first, that Tony is one of the most difficult types of character to introduce: he’s a complex character. He’s charming, funny, and likable–but he’s also insensitive, arrogant, and rude. In short, he’s a good character. (If you’re thinking this seems to mean that if you’ve created a good character, his characteristic moment should be a little tricky…. you’d be more right than not.)

We see that Tony is being honored with an award for his brilliant innovations in weaponry, that he couldn’t care less about the award, that he doesn’t care about embarrassing his friends with his actions, that he’s unconcerned about the deaths his weapons are causing, but that he’s also proud of the positive scientific breakthroughs his company has accomplished. He’s witty, can’t keep his mouth shut for anything, but is cool with putting others at ease (such as the soldiers in the convoy).

Peace Sign Tony Stark Iron Man Soldier

Almost all of that comes across in the single scene at the casino. We know Tony Stark inside out in the space of a few minutes. Pretty fast work for one scene.

So how’d they do it? And how can you repeat it?

Step 1: List Your Protagonist’s Important Characteristics

Before you can know how to introduce everything that’s important about your protagonist, first you gotta make sure you know what’s

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important. Take a look at the important elements of Tony’s character that are revealed in this opening characteristic moment:

  • He’s an engineering genius–a child prodigy
  • He’s CEO of the top weapons manufacturing company in the world
  • His parents were tragically killed in a car accident
  • He was mentored by his father’s partner–whom he eventually surpassed

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  • He has won lots of awards
  • He doesn’t care about people honoring him in any way except how he wants to be honored
  • He’s a playboy
  • He’s best friends with by-the-book Lt. Col. James Rhodes

gallery_movies-iron-man-2008-robert-downey-jr-terrence-howard

  • He’s unconcerned with the consequences of his actions (small- or large-scale)
  • He has a lightning-fast wit and no compunction about being impolite
  • He plays verbal games with people and uses insults to keep them from getting too close, all while trusting in his charisma to keep from alienating anyone too far
  • He doesn’t play by any rules but own

Step 2: Break Down the Characteristics Into Actions and Impressions

That’s a pretty long list up there. But not to worry: not all of these things have to be introduced separately. Many of them, such as his impolite wit, can be introduced simultaneously with other elements.

This is where you break down your list into two categories: Actions (which must be deliberately dramatized) and Impressions (which can be conveyed via subtext). Below, the “impressions” in our original list are now in italics.

  • He’s an engineering genius–a child prodigy
  • He’s CEO of the top weapons manufacturing company in the world
  • His parents were tragically killed in a car accident
  • He was mentored by his father’s partner–whom he eventually surpassed
  • He has won lots of awards
  • He doesn’t care about people honoring him in any way except how he wants to be honored
  • He’s a playboy
  • He’s best friends with Lt. Col. James Rhodes
  • He’s unconcerned with the consequences of his actions (small- or large-scale)
  • He has a lightning-fast wit and no compunction about being impolite
  • He plays verbal games with people and uses insults to keep them from getting to close, all the while trusting in his charisma to keep from alienating anyone too far
  • He doesn’t play by any rules but own

Impressions don’t have to be explained. They can be hinted at through the character’s actions. What this is means is that you can easily get your characteristic moment to pull double duty. While you’re busy dramatizing the Actions and important backstory (such as Tony’s playboy ways and the selfish nature of his relationships with Obadiah Stane and Rhodey), you can have the Impressions running silently in the background. Instantly, your characteristic moment is pulling twice as much weight.

Step #3: Choose the Right Scene for Your Characteristic Moment

Here comes the tricky part. You now have to choose just the right scene to illustrate all of these important characteristics.

It’s possible (and sometimes unavoidable) to break down your opening into a series of characteristic moments, in which you present first one of your protagonist’s important traits in one scene, then other traits in other scenes.

However, this approach offers the inherent risks of slowing down the plot, failing to present your character’s “big picture,” and appearing far more simplistic and less interesting than the layered approach used in Iron Man.

That’s why you must choose your characteristic moment’s scene carefully. Brainstorm settings and conflicts that will allow you to illustrate as many of your character’s important Actions and Impressions as possible.

In Iron Man, the awards ceremony at the casino offered the opportunity for a rapid-fire exploration of Tony’s backstory, which then segued into the brilliant moment when Tony fails to show up to claim his award: dramatizing both his contempt for other people’s rules and his casual self-centeredness.

It also allowed the important contagonist and sidekick characters, Stane and Rhodey, to be introduced, before showing us Tony himself, hard at “work” at the craps table, surrounded by fawning people with whom he cheerfully puts up while also disdaining them, sometimes to their faces.

Iron Man Tony Stark CHristine Everdeen

The scene that is best for your protagonist’s characteristic moment will depend entirely on the character himself and the needs of your story. But don’t settle. Dig deep to find a fun scene that presents the overall tone of your story and shows readers as much as possible about your fabulous character.

Who knows–maybe they’ll still be clamoring for him eight years and six stories later!

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