Specs & The City: Establishing Characters and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

By Brad Johnson

You’ve got your story ironed out. You broke your story; spent weeks or months organizing (and reorganizing) index cards, outlining, working out the details for the perfect ending, getting to know your characters inside and out; you’re ready to write… right?

Maybe.

Take another look at your outline (or sequence list, or whatever form of prep work you’re using) and pay particular attention to those moments where we first meet the main character and the major members of the supporting cast. Are you using those moments to establish everything the audience needs to know about the character? By “everything,” I don’t mean their entire history, I mean, do we get a complete sense of who this person is from their introduction to the story? If not, you may want to go back take another pass at it.

But it’s not my style in this column to give you advice and then just leave it on the doorstep for you to figure out. No, let’s delve into one of the best scripts you’ll ever read (for one of the best movies ever made) and see exactly how it can be done.

Establishing Character and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time be recapping the plot to Raiders. If, by some twist of fate, you’ve never seen the film, go watch it right now. I’ll wait…

Okay. Now that they’re gone, let’s get down to business.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is filled to the brim with great character moments, and it starts it off with an extended scene at the very beginning of the film when we’re first introduced to Indiana Jones. The entire opening sequence – from that first reveal as Indy steps out of the shadows, to the plane right out of danger – reveals piece after piece of Indy’s personality without ever outright saying it. Here’s a run-down:

There's a big snake in the plane, Jock!

There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!

  • He disarms his guide right before being shot with his whip:  he’s more than capable when it comes to action.
  • He dismisses the warning statue out in the jungle: he’s not superstitious.
  •  He gets around the trap that’s triggered by stepping into the sunlight: he’s smart.
  • He stops Satipo from moving forward when they reach the chamber with the idol and investigates the floor (“That’s what worries me”): despite all of his other traits, he’s still cautious.
  • He empties out extra sand out of his bag at the last moment before making the switch with the idol: he operates on instinct.

And after all of that, once Indy is back in the plane, he loses his cool over the snake that Jock has in the front seat, capping off everything by showing the audience that Indy is still human and has his weaknesses.

For most writers, that would be enough. They’ve established their main character in an iconic way and given the audience the information they’ll need to go with him on the upcoming journey. But Lawrence Kasdan doesn’t just do it once, he does it over and over again in this script.

After Indy officially begins his quest for the Ark, he heads to Nepal and we’re introduced to Marion Ravenwood. Kasdan immediately makes us aware that this is a woman to be reckoned with by having her, first, drink a mountain of men under the table in her bar, and then punch our “hero” in the face as he says “hello.”

Have you ever seen a sexier war criminal?

Have you ever seen a sexier war criminal?

But the introduction of Belloq might be the epitome of effective character establishment. Look at his very first interaction with Indy outside of the cave; “Dr. Jones. Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away. And you’d thought I’d given up.” Three sentences. That’s all it takes for you to know who Belloq is; his personality, his role in Indy’s life (and in this story), and what their personal history is like.

Three. Freaking. Sentences.

Remember, you only get one chance to introduce your characters, so seize the opportunity to show us as much about them as you can in those first moments. It’s that kind of effective, economical storytelling that will set your script apart from the rest of the submissions.

Remember to avoid monkeys who give the Nazi salute, have fun, and keep writing.

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