It's an old rule, but a good (and important) one: Always, always, *always* bring 'em onstage in character.
How many Bond movies have you seen? How many Batman? Notice they usually start with a big action splash? Sometimes it hooks into the ongoing story; others, it simply stands to intorduce the hero. At any rate, within a few seconds of the movie starting, you know you're looking at a man of action.
Or how about Jack Reacher? Every book in the series starts with Reacher being cool and collected, kicking ass and on the move. Even Tarzan's first adult appearance (after opening chapters describing his infancy and childhood) involves him hunting the deadly and feared black panther.
How do we meet Bridget Jones? Hapless, eating, drinking and smoking too much, embarrassed by her mother and about to make a horrible faux pas-- pretty much her character in a nutshell.
Robert DeNiro in Ronin: He stands outside the small French cafe, looking in. He wanders around the back to scout the exit, leaves a gun hidden where he can reach it in a hurry. That way, he gets through the frisk at the entrance, still knows how to get out and get lethal, should the need arise. We know right away, here's a guy who thinks ahead. Way ahead.
Hmmm... villains? Well, this is a writer's place to shine-- you get to show that son of a bitch being a true son of a bitch, even if he's trying to hide it.
Which brings me to the crux of my issue: how do you introduce Clark Kent?
For the few comics-imparied among you (and in which case, why *are* you reading this blog?) Clark Kent is Superman's alter ego. To decompress from the pressures of being God on Earth, Supes likes to unwind by being a bit of a pantywaist. Ahem, excuse me... 'mild mannered'.
So how do you bring the mild-mannered pantywaist onstage without losing your reader? And how do you hint that behind those glasses and that stutter, he's actually faster than a speeding bullet?
Tonight I saw 'From Paris With Love'. (Small confession: I'll go see ANYTHING Luc Besson does-- he's a master storyteller. If the man wants to adapt Green Eggs and Ham, he'll make one fine and gripping thriller out of it!)
We first meet Reese (played by new heartthrob Jonathon Rhys Meyers) in his Clark Kent role at the US Embassy in Paris. I watched him spend several seconds receiving a fax and thought, 'ah Jeez...'
Seriously, like five or ten seconds of film time, his hand is hovering over the paper as it comes out of the fax machine. It just doesn't get any more dweebish than that.
Until he talks. Poor Reese is a flunky to the Ambassador, the guy who brings coffee and schedules appointments and reminds his boss of people's names. So how do we show the hero hidden under this zero?
Well, as he flunkies about, he's also kicking his boss's ass at chess. We see him in action, see him thinking several moves ahead of a guy who fancies himself something of an expert. And before the scene is done, he gets the call from his spy-handler sending him on a mission.
You can show us the dweeb, but you've got under a minute to let those glasses slip. Lois Lane (or the US Ambassador, or whoever) may not notice, but the reader has to see that there's something more than mild manners under that facade.
Same goes for hidden villains. If your villain is posing as a friend at first, let us see a little something that shows what a real sumbitch he really is!
Daniel Cleever comes to mind. Hugh Grant needs nothing more than a two-second look to show us what kind of man he is, and how foolish Bridget would be to get involved with him.
Fagan comes off as a friend to Oliver Twist, but the other kids are afraid of him.
Eleanor starts The Haunting of Hill House with a blatant appeal to our sympathy (her life really, really, *really* sucks) and a bit of Grand Theft Auto. Come to think of it, that book ends on a note every bit as ambiguous as it begins. I guess journeys really do end in lovers meeting...