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Screenwriting : Are character descriptions compulsory in a screenplay? by Victor Titimas

Victor Titimas

Are character descriptions compulsory in a screenplay?

As I wrote multiple short stories(even before I started to write screenplays), I've noticed that when I create a character, I only set its name and the city of origin. I never think about its social background, skin color, ethnicity, and/ or physical appearance(eg: hair color, height, body type, etc.). Is it ok to do this in a screenplay or should a character be fully described in all the above aspects?

D Marcus

If the city of origin is essential to the story this should be mentioned in dialogue or visually - not so much in the character description. The rest I'm with you. Hair color, height isn't really needed in a character description. Race can be. But in MY case an actor of any race can play the characters I write so I never mention it. Unless it may be confusing I never mention age, either.

Pierre Langenegger

I sometimes give their age but not all the time. I've never used city of origin and don't see why anyone would. If accent is important then tell us they speak with a particular accent. I also don't describe their appearance unless I think it's important for the story that they look a particular way. Never mention clothes, hair color, height, etc unless it is important to the story. I've listened to several podcasts with Casting Directors who say too much information makes their job too difficult and restricts their choices.

Michael L. Burris

I think look, demeanor either goes hand in hand with or contradicts character introduction, presence, presentation and think it is almost always necessary. No heavy detail though.

Richard Toscan

What Emily said, but as a guide less than 10 words or so for that "some stuff". It's the reverse of the-more-the-merrier.

Michael L. Burris

Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy is described as sickly and boyish or boylike can't remember then as you read you get better details of his look from his demeanor, actions. I think Midnight Cowboy is well written giving the balance of detail needed for the characters who are more graphic than many as one example anyway.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

Yeah most of the time I just place an age, and something about their personality that can be seen. Like "he's never smiled a day in his life" or something like that.

D Marcus

I'm curious; how can "he's never smiled a day in his life" be seen? Seems difficult for an actor. He can not smile while on screen but that doesn't mean as a child the character didn't smile.

Chas Franko Fisher

I am so sick and tired of people saying "only write what you can see". You go to any progessional script, there will be unfilmmables. Particularly in character descriptions. Most writers getting picked up today have a voice and voice is most commonly expressed in unfilmmables. Don't be scared of them but use them judiciously. Read the best scripts in the genre you are writing in and learn from them. That said: never write plot exposition in an unfilmmable as per the Bitter Script Reader: http://thebitterscriptreader.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/unfilmables.html. See also: http://chasfisher.info/seem-vs-seen/

Chas Franko Fisher

My favourite ever character description: "A veteran of hopelessness. He gave up before the world did". Cuaron. You know. That guy who wrote and directed GRAVITY.

Pierre Langenegger

Agree with Dan, plus, don't forget, you can't use a production script as an example. Production scripts can be written any way they like.

Chas Franko Fisher

Look at any BlackList script (the proper Black List). Those are scripts that havent been produced but are being read all around town as the best of the best for the year. Littered with unfilmables. Don't listen to what anyone has to say. Look for yourself at what is breaking out, getting read, sold and then made.

K Kalyanaraman

In my belief, character descriptions, or character development is critical, for the director to set the pace. " A man walks into the room", can be bettered by " Sam walks into the room. He is of average height, about 45. His specs gives him an intellectual look". A writer can add the race, if it is central to the story. The director/casting team can thus look for "the Sam". My 2 cents! :-)

Dave McCrea

I friggin hate no character descriptions in a script. I need to picture the people to connect with it. I'm with you Chas, a script should be a great read first and foremost and secondly a blueprint for a great film. And great scripts most always have stuff like this in them. Sometimes putting in minor details that are not strictly filmable makes it a better read and gives the reader a better sense of the movie. They also give it a less impersonal vibe, as if the writer is talking directly to the reader - this helps them connect I think.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

"A man that never smiled in his life" - this works. It's all about what you set up before and after it. Clearly it is not literal, and if he smiles at the end of the movie that's even better. It definitely blurs the line of filmmables and unfilmmables but it works . I agree that unfilmmables have their place. I write them all the time, but I don't want the people who are new to screenwriting to think unfilmmables are okay when they're writing their first script. It almost never turns out well.

Dave McCrea

I think A man that never smiled in his life is a great description. The script is also for the actors and costume designers, not just the production manager. They want to know who is this guy.

Michael L. Burris

"A man than never smiled a day in his life" is decent but for the most part, not all instances it can replaced with the word "stoic" and an actor knows exactly what that is. Jon Doe, large muscular frame, hardened, stoic, enters, observes , sees who he looks for, continues to destination.

William Martell

You don't want to describe the physical aspects of the character (that's casting) but you do want to describe the character of the character (things that can be portrayed by the actor). " NEO, a younger man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one." Take care to find the essence of who the character is in one sentence or so. Think of attitude (which can be played). Think of the way they relate to the world around them.

Michael L. Burris

So Jon Doe, a man aware of his forboding presence, hardened, stoic, enters, hesitates, observes, sees who he looks for, continues. would be better than Jon Doe, large muscular frame, hardened, stoic, enters, observes , sees who he looks for, continues to destination. I guess the first one might be better. It's also nifty how changing one word and taking another word out would totally change the tone. Jon Doe, a man unaware of his forboding presence, stoic, enters, hesitates, observes, sees who he looks for, continues. It does show how hard rewrites can be William. Pretty good learning, thought advice. Always trying to learn more. Maybe this example just doesn't help me but gives others help too. Both are like oh no here this forboding man comes but his attitude, perception of self is totally different. Peace out all, leaving Stage 32 for a little while again.

David Kurtz

Lately (and only occasionally, I've not given the age of the protagonist (s), when it's a not a critical factor.

Doug Nelson

When I first introduce a character in a script, I provide the name (approximate age) and what they are wearing – providing the reader with a visual image. By way of example: MIKE (65), a rotund couch potato in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops… or ZOE (18), a street urchin in ragged jeans, a dark hoodie over her head… These paint pictures without going into much detail, it also tells my Casting Director what to look for - ages are targets only. I work up full character bios for the actors and director from which to develop the characters. I include things like hair length/color if it’s important to the story line only. (MARGO (30) a statuesque short-haired brunette in her form fitting deputy uniform – later there is a suspect with flowing blond hair – could it be?)

Mike Leins

I tend to just give the necessary details. If it matters to the story that this is a black man or a Spanish woman or a tall guy or a young girl, I'll point it out. If these details don't affect the story at all, I skip them.

Lisa Molusis

Introducing a character is your moment to ingrain the essence of that character into the readers mind and it's one of the best times to offer characterization that can really make a character stand out. A famous four word description from (I think) Body Heat comes to mind-- Ned Racine, rock n roll arsonist. So simple. Provocative. And fuckin' cool. Also, main characters should make an entrance onto the scene as well. If you're an actor which would you rather be? Ned Racine, 30s, jeans and t-shirt or "rock n roll arsonist?" It immediately gives an attitude about the character. I always carefully craft my character introductions. For example... Kate, 30s, computer genius and martial arts expert-- don't let her looks fool you, fuck with her and she will mess you up. You get a good idea of who this woman is without even hearing one spoken word or knowing what she's wearing of what kind of hair she has, 'cuz none of that really matters. Or Val Ison, 30s, FBI Profiler, a man who knows more about the dead than he does the living. You've got to make your work stand out above the fray...

Doug Nelson

Lisa – I really don’t get a visual from your character descriptions. What you’re saying about them is important as to who they are but is better placed in the character bios for the actors and director. In my description of Zoe – I gave a visual for the reader but I ended her character bio with the comment; she has answers to questions you would not dare to ask. I think you’re blending character visualization with the character bio.

Lobotomous Monk

i add them at the beginning of a comic book script... not for a screenplay though. I will say this... I think that it is really important to conceive of every character's personal dream. You do not have to understand the implications of this life dream (whether it is to visit the moon or save someone from a fire or to own a video game store), but the oneiric elements of a character's subconscious should be reified through the character's development in the actual script. This is also a valuable technique for keeping characters (especially protagonists) from reflecting the personality of the author.

Lisa Molusis

Doug, it isn't about giving a visual-- it's about providing the essence of the character. When you write a spec there are no 'bios' what you communicate in the script is what informs the reader about 'who' your character is. I don't care it they have blonde hair or not, unless it's important to the story-- ie a killer who murders women that have all the same feature. By all means, do what every works for you. It was an example of how I write. You're entitles to write the way you want, but I think it's dangerous to dictate what another writer should or should not do-- each writer must take information provided and apply it or discard it as they see fit.

Doug Nelson

Lisa, I can only say you want your script read or not.

Lorna Green

I believe character descriptions are necessary for the reader but I keep them concise and only include what's aabsolutely necessary. I have found that it can be detrimental to add to much detail. Its all about a happy medium.

Lisa Molusis

Doug, you're entitled to your opinion, certainly. And I respect that. I gave an example, you don't have to agree with it. But, my work does get read, so I think I'll continue as I choose. Bill Martell uses the example of Neo in the Matrix: " NEO, a younger man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one." Have you read it? It's a good example as well, imo. Really great writing, too. It isn't about being visual, it's about 'getting' who the character is-- this guy's a loner, working on the fringes, doesn't blend in with society's expectations, a rebel perhaps. BTW, it was the OP who was looking for opinions, not me. Now I wouldn't add what they're wearing unless it said something about the character. For example, it would be funny to see your "rotund couch potato in hawaiian shirt and flip flops if he was in Alaska and stepped outside in the frigid cold and two feet of snow. In that case you'd be playing off the contrast, which can be fun.

Dave McCrea

Here are some character descriptions from sides I received for auditions recently here in NY mostly for TV series and indie films: 1. white, a shaggy hipster type 2. a tightly muscled, heavily tattooed ex-con 3. He is a stocky tough street kid, known for his heavy hands (early 30’s) 4. 43, too soft for his ambition 5. a cold-blooded white boy, who thinks he's a black guy with a massive 52 inch chest and a 11 Silver grill" covering his not so pearly whites. 6. A PLAINCLOTHES DETECTIVE (40s, crisp, calmly alert) 7. 30s, hipster meets homicidal maniac
1. This i can see but now the actor must have a Norman Reedus type of haircut 2. "tightly muscled" - does that mean ripped, or does it mean that he's tense? This description doesn't give me much to work with. 3. This one is the best probably, I know how to play this 4. This is kind of vague and this is the kind of thing that should be conveyed in the characters' dialogue and actions not in the character description. 5. This one is the worst, that script was really overwritten too. I wear a 42 regular so how am I going to exude a 52 inch chest? way too limiting. It would be much better if it was just "a cold-blooded white boy who thinks he's black" - I know how to play this in my sleep. 6. he's "calmly alert" what all the time? Character descriptions are better if they fit the character at all situations. He's probably not calmly alert when there's people shooting at him. 7. this one sounds cool but it's actually tricky to visualize. Hipster is a little vague.
Here's a key for me - if you gave an actor just the description, would they be able to improvise as that person? IF so, that's a great description. With just the information given in no. 3 and my revised version of no. 5, I could improvise that role without any script, but not really the others.

Frazer Houston

I agree with Lisa. Even though one of my main characters is based on a real person who lived in the 19th century, there are no photos of her and so instead I drew upon what history I knew of her.

Frazer Houston

I thought writing about real people was hard, reading the conversation here I am guessing that making characters from nothing to something is very difficult :)

Doug Nelson

When I’m running auditions, I provide a complete character bio to each participant with time enough to go through ‘em. I direct the reading actor through the scene. Then I ask the actor to go through it again, improvise however he/she wants. Inventing fictional characters is not all that hard – I cut pictures out of magazines, I watch people in the mall, on the street, in the coffee shop, in the airport… The fictional characters in my scripts are composite people.

Michael L. Burris

Exactly Doug Nelson. Now that is relatable. I love Tina Fey's commercials. Her's is not so much composite characters but simple storyline that might seem trivial or dumb at first. I wanted to immerse myself in Black Friday events just for such reason.

Michael L. Burris

Doug, I just had to follow up with a story. Your welcome to use it in your class. So it's Black Friday. My buddy needs to buy dogfood because he ran out and oh, hot chocolate to passify his wife. They had blockades everywhere directing the traffic of humanity. So we weave in and out, find the hot chocolate then go get the dogfood. The dogfood just happened to be by the pharmacy department, so I'm like I bet nobody thinks to checkout at the pharmacy department. It's Black Friday, nobody's going to be thinking practical. So we go up to the checkout gal and ask if we can make any purchases there. She said yes and there was a short line of two people we had to wait behind. No big deal. we were in and out of the store in less than fifteen minutes on a Black Friday. Here's the thing though I was going to get ready to rant if we were told no. How can anybody deny the health of a pet who directly relates to my health being my best psychiatrist. Not only that, how could anybody want to cause the anxiety of my wife waiting for her hot chocalate causing me woes and wrath indesrcibible in words. Again taking away from my wellness and health. This is supposed to be a pharmacy for health people, health. Now I'm going to have a crisis, a mental breakdown, right here and now. Then I'll either be carted off to the psych ward or jail. All I needed was a little practical wellness but no, you had to deny me. Now instead of something practical for health and wellness you want to make me get prescibed your evil, evil drugs just so you can make a buck. Again we walked in a nd in fifteen minutes, smooth, suave and debinair because damn I copped one hell of an idea.

Doug Nelson

Michael - now go write it.

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