Screenwriting : Character descriptions by Diana Murdock

Diana Murdock

Character descriptions

How much detail is the norm when it comes to character description? I know it is wise to not get too detailed, but apart of age, how much of the physical appearance is recommended?

Pierre Langenegger

Think of a character description/introduction as a cue for the actor as to how they should portray this character. It's okay to give us mannerisms in your effort to create individual people for your story but do not give us a physical description such as race, height, weight, eye color and hair UNLESS it is important to the story, after all, it's not the writer's job to cast the actors.

William Martell

I don't even use age unless it's critical to the story - casting is not my job. I focus on the character of the character, not the externals (which change by star). The role could be played by Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or any one of the stars who can open a movie. I've had male roles cast with females - and because I focused on the character of the character, no real difference. Don't get caught up on what people look like, focus on who they think and feel and the emotional conflict they are struggling with. Character.

Diana Murdock

Thanks, everyone. This feedback is very helpful :).

Beth Fox Heisinger

The best character descriptions tend to include a combination of what we see (physical/action) and some intriguing tidbit about the character's personality and/or situation. I love this tip from screenwriter, John August: "Look for details that have an iceberg quality: only a little bit sticks above the surface, but it represents a huge mass of character information the reader can fill in." ;)

Elvira Drake

Only list what is absolutely necessary/relevant to the story. If it doesn't have to be a blonde, don't say she's blonde. ---Sometimes it's hard when you can see the character so clearly in your head.

William Martell

From THE MATRIX: "NEO, a younger man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one." Sums up the character... everything else we get from what the character does in the introduction scene and all the scenes that follow.

Ifeanyi Odenyi

Height, complexion, weight and any other thing that makes the character unique. You can go as far as describing the dressing.

Kyle Climans

It's tough to say. Sam Peckinpah devotes an entire paragraph describing Major Dundee. But it sums his character up so completely that you have no questions about who he is, plus Peckinpah was a hell of a writer. Oliver Stone also described characters by their race and appearance, especially in his script for Platoon.

Timothy Burnham

I personally only give as much physical description as is relevant to the story. Then let their introduction and actions speak for them. Remember that no matter how specifically you describe someone, everyone reading is going to project their own unconscious experiences onto your words and see someone else. So I normally just give an age or range (30s), identifying characteristics (tall, blonde), and personal identifiers to give us a peek into this specific person (30s, tall, blonde, cruel eyes). I know I don't want or need to read an essay on a character before the story starts unless you are a REALLY talented writer and the information is crucial to know up front.

Craig D Griffiths

I take the Craig Mazin approach, hair, makeup, wardrobe. This can be hit in any number of ways. For me gender and age is important visual aids. It can also help in building a relationship.

Diana Murdock

Thank you so much, everyone for helping me out on this part of my screenplay. I have a lot to work with here. Grateful for you all!!!

Tom Chucas

Would be beneficial to set a goal to the character and have something internal or something about themselves that stops them from achieving it, ergo creating a better character dynamic and an arc

Richard F. Russell

Generally, less is more. I try to get the essence of the character rather than any detailed description. You want the reader to know she'll rip the heart out of any man who dares to love her, instead of blue-eyed, blonde in jeans and tee.

Dan Guardino

You just need enough so they know what actors to hire. For main actors I usually just put down age and something about their personality.

Shawn Speake

Great thread. I'm a A,B,C, guy. A: generic age: 20s, 30s, etc. B: an internal about their personality with an action to go with it. And for readers sometimes I add C: hair color. For some reason readers love hair color.

Tamara LeClair

Viewers love hair color too ;)

Linda Perkins

A general description is more than enough unless the character is filling a special quality/need.

Diana Murdock

Fabulous insight. I've been tweaking my descriptions now. Feeling empowered.

Anthony Moore

These are the type of character descriptions I use: A short mousey man with slicked back hair. Pimply faced teen with unruly locks Voluptuous fem with a disarming smile Unless there is a specific trait that is critical to the story like a scar or tattoo that will be seen later that identifies a false character or shows a passage of time in a character's life, there's really no need to go any further.

Sue-Kim Steele Green

Someone gave me a great tip; look at the 16 personality types of the 'Briggs Myers' test. Especially if that particular character type can add great conflict and help drive your story forward. Hope this helps.

Doug Nelson

I assume you're talking about the first time character introduction in a spec script, right? The first time (and only the first time), capitalize the character's name, then an age, usually in parentheses followed by a brief visual, example: ZOE (18), in a hoodie and jeans bursts in, gun drawn... Avoid stating specifics here unless necessary to the story line, all you want to do here is give the reader a basic visualization. If you describe her as a tall, willowy blond – you've just made the Casting Director's job that much harder by eliminating a good half of his applicants. As to her character, that's part of your story – show us that she's gregarious, secretive, naive, a schemer or whatever by her actions – don't tell us what you can show us. You should provide a complete character bio under separate cover for the Producer, Director and Casting Director.

William Martell

Just for fun, I have a script that says after intro-ing the first character that every character in the screenplay is non-white except for two. I never tell which two. I wanted readers to come with a different preconceived notion of the character's ethnicity.

Kay Luke

What Anthony Moore said plus age. i.e. (50's)

Doug Nelson

William – are you intending to sell your script or just play with the reader's mind? In either case; don't do that! If you want to sell it, the reader (an intern in the Agent's office) needs to have a clear and concise understanding of your story. It's okay to play with the audience's mind but don't play games with the reader. If you're doing this to play with the reader's mind – for lack of a good provocative hobby – then you are taking precious reading opportunities away from other writers. Don't do that!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Just to add to William's comment, and as another example of defining race in character descriptions... I have a spec script in which race is very important, very relevant to the story. I really did not wish the characters to be overly labeled or too "politically correct." It took me a while to figure it out, to find the right balance. I wanted a more intimate telling, a personal sense to the writing. So I ended up letting the story, the known history, the location, my name choices clarify race for me. I ended up having to label my Caucasian characters, not so much anyone else, just here and there when needed. And within the context of my particular story, it works well. ;) Also, just as another example, I recently read a spec script that also deals with a particular community and a well-known historical event. And within that spec script the screenwriter chose to label every African-American character "African-American" despite the obvious context of the community and the well-known historical fact that the majority of people involved were African-American. Within that particular story's context and script execution, I found all the straight-up race labeling too cold, too didactic. It was overly redundant too. It created a sense of distance rather than intimacy, which made it hard to engage—in my opinion. As a reader I didn't want the classroom version, I was hoping for a sense of authenticity, of truth—if that makes any sense! LOL! Anyway, I think it all boils down to a specific script, its needs, its context, specific characters, the desired tone, the writer's voice, and of course clarity. ;)

Shawn Speake

Happy Holidays, everyone! See you Monday

William Martell

Doug - I've made my living selling screenplays or writing on assignment for the past 26 years, so yes - that screenplay was written to earn me money.

Dan Guardino

When I introduce a character I include a bit about age if necessary and a certain quality. That is all so my character description is brief and I never mention race unless there is a reason the character has to be a certain race.

Dan Guardino

William. As a professional who has had a lot of success obviously you can do whatever you want. However like Doug stated newer screenwriters trying to get their foot in the door should not play with the reader's mind.

Doug Nelson

William – well bully for you. I've been at this writing business, off-n-on, since about '67 and I'm presently under contract with both a NYC and a Hollywood Agent. There are a few other old codgers who participate in this forum too, but the vast majority are wannabes and newbies who are seeking knowledge. I speak to them and try to offer as much guidance, support and encouragement as I can without polishing my OSCAR, ego or talking down to them. (Sorry but sometimes comments just rub me the wrong way.)

Chris Herden

'Teddy Laurson, rock and roll arsonist...' (Body Heat - Lawrence Kasdan)

Anthony Cawood

Doug/William, too funny ;-)

Doug Nelson

Anthony – I see more disappointment than humor in it and It offers nothing to the OP's inquiry. It does cause me to wonder about the point of participation in this forum.

Anthony Cawood

Doug - William has had 20 or so films made from his feature scripts (check out his IMDB), published a number of screenwriting guides (you can buy em on Amazon) and offered his advice on here for years, his first post in this thread is the third down and I think it has a relevant and interesting view to impart on what he focuses on in his character descriptions, a direct response to the OPs question. His other post, the one you took issue with, starts with 'Just for fun'... kinda sums up his what he was doing in that particular script, and who knows, could have been different enough to actually make the reader pay attention as it wasn't taking a cookie cutter approach. Your own first post on this thread is how you intro characters and is your view, just as valid of course, and demonstrates one of my fave things about screenwriting - there are no actual rules, just people's opinions and what is the current fashion often based on pro scripts. What amused me in particular was William's sarcastic response to your advice to him and your Oscar rubbing comment. Participation in the forum is optional, but would be less educational and less amusing without you (and William).

William Martell

I think the point of participation is education, right? So when you asked me a couple of questions, I answered. Why this is a problem for you, I have no idea.

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