Character Descriptions

You've always heard that "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." The same is true of your characters, and how you introduce and describe them says as much about you as a writer as it does about your characters' personalities.

Here are a few brief tips to keep in mind before we get more in depth:

  • Avoid what is called a "driver's license" description. By that I mean don't just rattle off a character's age, race, height, weight, hair color and eye color and expect to wow any readers. This is a sure sign of an amateur writer.
  • Avoid mentioning the sex of a character if it is obvious based on the character's name. Realize, however, that many foreign names -- those of Asian, Slavic, or Arabic origin, for example -- may say nothing of sex to Western readers. You can also reveal a new character's gender by saying the character's relation to another character in the screenplay (Jon's mother, Benny's brother, Julie's boyfriend, etc.).
  • Avoid calling out a character's race unless his/her race is crucial to the story. Otherwise, leave the character's race to casting.

Quick Descriptors:

Before they launch into telling too much about a character, many writers will begin by revealing a character's age. This is usually very important, and almost always needed. Writers can be specific about age (9, 28, 75), to more general (early 20s, mid-40s, late teens), to even more general (elderly, college-aged).

When you are offering up the beginning description, here are a couple of ways to do it:

Writers can either set the age off with commas next to the character's name, or they can enclose the age in parentheses. Either way is right. From there, the writer would go on to further tell the reader what needs to be known to draw a picture of the character.

Let's say the character's race is also important. We can cue the race with the age, like this:

In the first example above, both the age and race are set off with commas.

In the second example, they are enclosed in parentheses, with a semicolon separating them.

Now that we've got the minor particulars and how to show them out of the way, let's get into the meat of character description and how to write descriptions that make characters come alive!

Getting to Know Characters Through Stereotypes:

Sometimes the best way to tell a reader everything he/she needs to know about a character is with stereotyping. I know, I know. All my liberal friends out there are cursing me under their breaths and saying something to themselves about how they hate stereotypes and we shouldn't stereotype anyone, etc., etc., etc.

Well, like it or not, stereotypes exist, and for writers, that's a good thing!

Look at these example's below:

How you like them apples?

After each character intro., I give a brief, stereotypical description of the character, set off with commas, that tells the reader EVERYTHING he/she needs to know about this character.

In the first example, NANCY is that annoying neighbor who probably lives alone, but is constantly coming over to report something going on in the neighborhood that you can probably care less about. You can't get rid of her fast enough. She is probably perpetually dressed in an unflattering night gown with flowers all over it. Granted, I didn't WRITE any of that, but what I did write gives that image.

In the next example, JAMES GRAY is the co-worker who you are constantly rolling your eyes at because he seems to go above and beyond in a job with little pay and no benefits in order to impress a boss who doesn't even know his name. He's gets to work early, stays late, and reads every memo as if it were important to national security.

In the last example, ARNOLD is a hot head who is set off at the drop of a hat. If you look him in the eye, he'll want to know what the hell you are lookin' at.

Not bad, eh? All that, with very few words.

Notice that I didn't mention age in any of the examples above. Sometimes the stereotypical description will say enough about age (as in Nancy's case). Sometimes the image is strong enough that the age isn't as important (as in the other two cases).

Notice also I didn't mention gender. Well, with those names, the genders were obvious. But in the last two examples, had the genders not been implied by the names, I'm still okay, because I use either pronouns such as "he" or descriptors such as "poster boy" so that the gender is made known through the context of the description. Much better than calling out "male" or "female."

Finally, notice that I kinda broke a writing rule; that being, don't write anything you cannot show on screen.

Will the audience see Nancy at home with her twelve cats? We they get a peek at Jame's cubicle? Will they be entertained by Arnold screaming at a red light? Probably not.

But in character descriptions writer's can take a few liberties with the rules in order to create an image of the character.

Expanded, Creative Description:

With character descriptions, it is ok to write a little more than you normally would. Writing character description is a great place in a screenplay to let your creative juices flow and show off your writing talents.

Writing witty and creative character descriptions is one way writers can distinguish themselves among the piles of other screenplays a reader might be wading through. If you can create a really nice and clear image of a character through a cleverly-written character description, it'll show you to be a talented writer, and many readers will be inclined to keep reading.

Look at these examples:

The above examples are a little more than the shorter, stereotype-style descriptions I used before. A couple of times I use a full, five-line paragraph to create the image of my character. Nothing wrong with that. Wanna use two full paragraphs, fine! But I wouldn't go beyond that, because then you are likely including TOO MUCH information.

Let's look at the individual examples and see what we have.

In the first example, "trophy-wife hopeful" might be all that is needed to create a good character image. But I expound a little to be sure. I mention her fake hair color, tan, and fingernails, and even allude to her fake breasts without actually saying it. I did tie her down to an age (28), simply because trophy wives come in all ages.

In the second example, we meet Wilson McGregor, who is the nerdy type. I mention he is wearing an "Empire Strikes Back" tshirt. Does that cue the director that they need to contact George Lucas and work out licensing rights for a tshirt? Not really. I mention this to create an image of Wilson for the reader. What is on the shirt says less about how the character should be dressed for the scene and more about the type of person he is and his confidence level. In the end, any ol' shirt would do for the film (so long as it is something a nerd would wear). Again, I took the time to give a general approximation of age. Nerds also come in all ages. I wanted this one to be beyond high school, and on the edge of being beyond college.

Again, notice in the second example I break the writing rule. We'll likely never see his mother making Wilson a sandwich and cutting off the crust. But the information helps to round out the image of the character for the reader.

In the last example, we have a tough, no-nonsense bounty hunter. I could have gone into a great amount of trivial description as to his size (broad shoulders, lots of muscles, montrous build, etc.) and his attire (tight muscle shirt, loose-fitting khakis, heavy, steel-toed boots, ammunition strapped to his chest, etc), but why? "Half man, half mountain" and the fact he is a bounty hunter creates enough of an image to allow us to write less and dispense with a lot of useless information.

Notice in each of the last two examples I break another writing rule; that is, I wander into second-person with the pronoun "you," as if I were speaking directly to the reader. Again, in character description, you can feel free to play a little loose with the rules so long as you don't go overboard. I think it works well here, especially in the last example.

In the last example I also used a bit of foul language with "ass," which is usually a no-no. But I didn't exactly drop the F-bomb, and I think breaking that rule here helps to convey the character image to the reader. Again, don't go crazy.

When you are introducing a new character, especially an important character, take the time to create a good, clear image for the reader in a way that shows off your writing ability. Show your stuff. Set yourself apart.