Primarily through dialogue, the 1989 flick, “Troop Beverly Hills,” presents three characterization tools: contradiction, conflicting perceptions, and comparison.
The film opens with the big boss of the Wilderness Girls squaring against Velda Plendor (one of two antagonists), a militaristic frontierswoman who wants to eliminate the young debutantes of Beverly Hills from the Wilderness Girls Organization. The chief reads aloud an application for the position of B.H. troop leader filed by our protagonist, Phyllis Nefler (played by Shelley Long).
As she reads the application in the WGO meeting, the camera is on Phyllis in her world–Rodeo Drive–and the first characterization tool is illustrated: Contradiction.
According to the application, Phyllis Nefler is interested in community affairs. According to the camera, community affairs pertain to who in local society is fooling around with whom, and all the accompanying gossip. According to the application, Phyllis is thrifty. According to the camera, her definition of thrift is to save $600 off a $5600 beaded gown by pointing out the unnoticeable absence of a single bead. How Phyllis presents herself contradicts who she is: a spoiled rich woman.
When Phyllis arrives home with her goodies from her most recent shopping spree, we learn more about her through the second tool employed: Conflicting perception.
Phyllis’s soon-to-be-ex husband and the second antagonist, Freddy Nefler (played by Craig T. Nelson), is on the scene to add an exclamation point to what we’ve learned about his extravagant almost-ex wife: All she knows how to do is to spend money. According to him, he makes it, she spends it. According to her, she spends it for his benefit: Maintenance of the Beverly Hills image he strives for. You never give me credit for what I do, she yells. You never do anything, he shouts. Each have different perceptions of reality.
As they argue with each other, Freddy utilizes tool number three: Comparison. In this case, the writers compared then with now. Freddy remembers that when he married her, Phyllis was bright, loving, caring, funny, full of potential and energy. “You were so creative, I couldn’t wait to see what you’d do with it. Now I know what you did with it: You went shopping!”
The key to all three characterization tools is conflict: conflict between perception and reality, conflict between two characters’ perceptions, conflict between what was and what is. And the conflict is best and most concisely presented through dialogue, not backstory, because through the dialogue we learn so much more than just who the main character is. In the movie, we learned that Velda, an exaggerated villain for comedy’s sake, really hates Beverly Hills girls. We discovered that Freddy, a sympathetic antagonist, misses the woman he married. We also learn that Phyllis signed up to be the B.H. troop leader but neither her husband nor her daughter believe she’ll see the project through because “you’ve never finished anything!”–which presents the plot, story conflict, protagonist’s goal and the beginning of the character arc.
Granted, it would take a novelist longer than nine minutes to present all this, but a book’s opening scene can present it all if everything the author writes serves double duty. No wasted words, sentences, paragraphs. Everything serves to ground the reader in the story.
So, write, edit, rewrite, re-edit, polish, buff and shine your openers until they’re at least as good as a piece-of-fluff chick-flick!