Screenwriting : Ross Putman's How NOT to Introduce a Female Character by Bill Costantini

Ross Putman's How NOT to Introduce a Female Character

By now I'm sure you've heard about or read Ross Putman's Twitter account that shows some actual female character descriptions that he reads. It seems like some people kinda focus on just the physical look of female characters, and sometimes that focus tends to be more of a hyper-sexualization of such characters. Here's a link to that account for the samples he provides. https://twitter.com/femscriptintros?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw Slate writer Christine Cauterucci responded with a clever story: what if male characters were introduced in scripts like female characters? http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/02/10/if_male_characters_were_... It's an amatuerish fail for novice writers to just flatly state "what we see" in a major character's introduction description. Don't forget to include some revealing insights that show who the character is and what is unique about them on the inside, too. This is one of your few chances in a script to creatively and succinctly state the multi-facets of your characters. Most of the great character descriptions show, in a couple short lines, just that: what this major character is about or may represent. In one of his many articles on the subject, John August states that if the introduction is not done effectively, chances are that the rest of the story sucks, too. I'd imagine the rest of the pros in the industry feel that way, too. Good luck, everybody.

If Male Characters Were Introduced in Scripts Like Women
If Male Characters Were Introduced in Scripts Like Women
Screw the Bechdel test-even when women get leading roles onscreen, it turns out, their characters get written as if they were dreamed up by salivating teenage boys.
Beth Fox Heisinger

Yup, sexist terms are very appalling. Is this "lifting the lid" on anything? Umm, no. This has been going on forever. Gee, how nice, that a male producer is calling attention to something that's been called out by countless women, by lots of people. Christine Cauterucci's article nails the point much better—hilariously so! Just cracked me up! It absolutely demonstrates how ridiculous and offensive it is to objectify women, certainly female characters, by turning the table on male characters. As far as reading scripts, personally, this is a gauge I use to form an opinion about any given script: how are characters described or developed, especially female characters.

Bill Costantini

Beth - I could certainly see how novice writers could fail in that regard. While really great writers may include a physical description in their character intros, the most important and telling descriptors are the words that describe who the characters are inside. People who don't do that are probably not going to get their scripts read or taken seriously. It's just another example of how every single word counts in a really great script. In The Diary of A Teenage Girl, here is the character description for Minnie: "MINNIE GOETZE, an intensely smart fifteen-year old, curious and strong but not jaded...." In Birdman, here is the character description for Sam: "She has simple and striking good looks, with an edge in her voice and behind her eyes." Very succunct explanations of how complex each character is. Every single word counts.

Jorge J Prieto

Thanks, Bill. Very helpful as always.

Anthony Cawood

Though interestingly the description of Minnie, purely on the page, is four unfilmables... smart, curious, strong, not jaded... these may well be evidenced later in the script but as an intro many readers, script consultant, gurus etc would argue against such an approach. Personally, I like it :-)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yup, every word counts. You'll get no argument from me there, Bill. Lol! :) However, seasoned writers as well as novice writers often overuse physical attributes or sexualized descriptions for female characters. With female characters, there's often a reference or mention of beauty/being sexy/good looks, more so than male characters. It's a strange gender bias, and female writers do it to. I just read the beginning of a script written by a female writer and I found myself cringing because of her oversexualized female characters. And, in Birdman, is it even necessary to describe Sam as having "striking good looks?" Just asking. I haven't seen the film nor read the script—yet. But when reading the description you shared with us, I wonder? How is that relevant? Couldn't she easily be described as: "simple, but with an edge in her voice and behind her eyes." Personally, I find that far more intriguing.

Bill Costantini

Jorge - thank you. By the way...did you finish your November Write Club Script yet? It's almost....next November, you know. Aye-yah...these writers...I'm telling you.... Anthony - it's my understanding that in the introduction of characters, screenwriters get the opportunity to also describe personality, and not just physical appearance. (Take that, novelists!) Beth - I hear you. At least in Birdman, though, it was a nice balance. And what a great line..."behind her eyes." I am soooo going to steal that. You can't copyright a sentence fragment, right? Heh-heh.

Bill Costantini

Victor - ever hear of this one? "It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is xxx.xxxx His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep. He is feeling quarts of milk for coldness and examining their expiration dates."

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sorry Bill... obviously your intention here is to discuss writing better character descriptions, but as I already hinted at my feelings regarding this Ross Putman Twitter thing, I must further express that the attention he is receiving is rather disturbing and saddening. Putman has been written up everywhere from The Guardian, Time, NPR, The Wrap, The Hollywood Reporter to the Huffington Post for doing something that’s already been done before—again and again and again—by women. There have been several women in the entertainment industry who have spearheaded efforts like this in order to highlight these issues—Geena Davis to name one. There has already been Twitter accounts/blogs/documentaries about this issue done by women, starting years ago. While it's both hilarious and heartbreaking to see female characters being written and submitted to producers this way, it's equally heartbreaking to see Mr. Putman being toted as some sort of "whistle blower." Anyway, again, I apologize for digressing and suddenly being so serious. I'm being a bit of a downer, huh? Sigh. For me, I don't see this as a novice writer issue at all, but rather one that's industry wide.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh, and the description for "the dude" is great. However, have you ever read one like that for a female character? Nothing comes to mind... Ah, wait... Maybe "Clementine" in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: "The door opens and Clementine enters. She’s in her early thirties, zaftig in a faux-fur winter coat over an orange hooded sweatshirt. She’s decidedly funky and has blue hair."

Bill Costantini

Beth - I totally hear you, and you're not being a bit of a downer.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Thanks, Bill. :) And, great point, CJ. Context is everything. :)

Bill Costantini

CJ - I hear you. I'm pretty sure that, in a radio interview the other day, he stated that "this was the entire character description." Also...his previous works have some pretty smart female leads. He does goes quite beyond the "women in peril" genre, and in stereotyping females. I think Kathryn Rushent (sic?), one of the mods here (?), had a script request from him last year, if I recall correctly. But people pitching or submitting scripts to him should know what he's looking for, and what he's not looking for.

Bill Costantini

Victor - Happy Valentine's Day to you, too, Sweet Cheeks.

Jorge J Prieto

Billy, I finished my November Write Club in 3 weeks. The logline for, The Secret Dancer, is up in my profile. The screenplay I have to go back in a month to tweak and review. Thanks for asking, darling, this is why I love you.

Jorge J Prieto

Sorry, Bill, you are Victor's darling, you are my sweetheart, after all, it's valentines weekend.

Jorge J Prieto

Thanks, Victor, you are the MOST positive person, the only one of its kind , I've come across here. Lol.

William Martell

I am beautiful, but don't know it...

Beth Fox Heisinger

C'mon, guys... You're all pretty. Could we please return to the thread topic. Thanks. xxoo

William Martell

Though there are way too many female leads who are just props for the male lead (girlfriend, love interest, etc), I think the real problem isn't just the introduction... but what the heck happens after that. Part of introducing some star role is kind of kissing the butt of the star - and that's where all of this beauty comes in. Guys tend to be tough or strong or good looking as well. Yes, we should be finding more character oriented ways to describe these characters, but what is more important is what they do in the story. In looking at my female character intros, some end up being beautiful or attractive or even sexy... but those are also the descriptions in a reveal situation. In one script this spy beats the crap out of the male lead and is then revealed to be the female lead. So I wanted to say she was beautiful so the reader wouldn't think it was Arnold Schwarzanegger in a wig or something. Same thing in another script where they two male leads are waiting for the most badass jungle guide in the world (named "Larry") and it ends up being a woman. From there, both women (and others in other scripts) often save the male lead's butts, and usually fight beside them and often find unique ways to solve problems (female perspective being different than male). But the goal is not to make the female characters just some form of arm candy or a plot device. That's the real problem - all movie stars are some form of beautiful, but they shouldn't only be beautiful and not aware of it.

Beth Fox Heisinger

But isn't describing female characters as "beautiful" rather expected or cliché? Almost all female characters are described as such, plus all actresses are beautiful, right? LOL! So, couldn't it be considered redundant? Or perhaps a stereotype? ...I'm just rambling in a general sense. Of course, if "beautiful" is relevant to a particular character then it's relevant. And, yes, male characters are often described as "handsome." The key is to develop three dimensional characters who operate under their own agency. :) One of my favorite female characters that I love and whom I think is beautiful, but never described as such in the script is Vasquez from Aliens: "VASQUEZ eyes her (Ripley) coldly as she passes. Like Drake, Vasquez is younger then the rest and her combat-primer was the street in a Los Angeles barrio. She is tough even by the standards of this group. Hard-muscled. Eyes cunning and mean."

Beth Fox Heisinger

"Yes, we should be finding more character oriented ways to describe these characters, but what is more important is what they do in the story." Well said, William. Couldn't agree more. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, Ross Putman's Twitter thing just shines the light on himself. As I stated earlier, I find the attention he's receiving disturbing and saddening.

Dan Guardino

I think the best way to describe the character is through their action or show them doing something interesting in the process. That way instead of just painting a picture of them you are making them come alive.

Beth Fox Heisinger

I have a pdf with 100 character descriptions/full intros compiled for comparison/example that I received from Mentorless.com. Most on the list are from movies that most people have seen, so you're familiar with the story and thus the character's purpose/service for the story. What's apparent is: it is far more common for a female character than a male to be considered and weighed as "attractive" or "not attractive;" that this "judgement" is part of her description, which is truly unfortunate. Why does it matter? It's often part of a female character description when the story isn't even sexual in nature. If we are creating characters for the purpose of serving a story why does determining and defining their worth based on their sexual attractiveness matter? Does it for male characters?—more often, not. This "judgement" is often given to female characters who are older than 20. "Her beauty now faded." "Her beauty now hardened." Or, because it's an older character there's this need to make sure she's "worthy;" "She's 45 and still attractive." Male characters can have a "pot belly and unkempt hair" or be "ruffled and disheveled" without this "judgement." Of course, a character can be sexual, but you don't have to sexualize/objectify that character in order to do so. There's a difference. These are some of the helpful points brought up by women in the industry. When I come across an amazing script like "Little Miss Sunshine" I read it over and over, trying to learn as much as I can from it. When characters are treated fairly, equally, truthfully, authentically, tersely, the script shines, it glows. Here's the simple character intro/description for "Sheryl" in "Little Miss Sunshine" without any such "judgement": "A woman, SHERYL, 40s, is smoking and talking on a cell phone as she weaves through a strip-mall landscape. She wears office attire and a name tag that reads, “Sheryl." Love it!

Bill Costantini

Beth - no doubt there are many ways to approach the introduction description of a character. Thanks!

Beth Fox Heisinger

...Okay? That's rather skirting the issue (no pun intended, okay it totally was), which is interesting given that this thread was started with the Ross Putnam Twitter thing—I don't care who he is either—pointing out how female characters are often objectified; listing script snippet examples. Mr. Putnam's list will have no effect whatsoever on larger issues. You titled this thread "Ross Putnam's How Not to Introduce A Female Character." So, as the only female writer commenting on this thread (so far), offering my perspective as a woman, I guess I'm done here. I've been dismissed. If you'd like the pdf I mentioned, Bill, I'm happy to sent it to you. I checked the Mentorless web site and it seems that it is no longer available. :)

Anthony Cawood

I'd love the pdf Beth. Anthony

Beth Fox Heisinger

You got it, Anthony! I sent it just now. :)

Anthony Cawood

Thanks Beth, really appreciated!

Bill Costantini

Beth - I apologize if you feel I was being dismissive to you with my last comment. Anyone can introduce their characters anyway they want to. Ross Putnam's feelings and examples just reinforce my approach on this story element, and even made me visit some of my notes on the topic, which led to me re-writing some of my character intros that made them a little more meatier. If I didn't read Putnam's Twitter feed, that probably would have never happened. Maybe it didn't quite affect the larger issues that you mentioned, but it ended up making my intros more insightful and better. And I'd like your PDF, too.

Doug Nelson

I have to both agree and disagree here. As a screenwriter, its my obligation to provide as succinct a visual image that I can to the reader. Then I must show that character's wants, needs, motivations, fears...all through action and dialog. The Director and Actor must bring their skills into play I introduce all characters the same way: NAME (age), visual. It's true that some men don't like being introduced as “wimpy nerds” just as most women are offended if introduced as”a street-wise bimbo” - but we're dealing with a concise visual fantasy word here. Not a socially correct gathering of real people.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Thanks, Bill. Much appreciated. And no worries. No offense was taken. Truly. :) I think anything that challenges us, challenges our thinking, offers new insights, and perhaps brings opportunity to change or grow or evolve or develop, is a really good thing. I try to live my life with eyes wide open. Stay open minded. I'm in a constant state of change. Look, I'm passionate about these issues, I care about them deeply—no secret there—but I do try to keep myself in check. I certainly don't wish to offend or alienate my creative brothers who often feel the same way I do. Plus, I really dislike polarized language, certainly between the genders. We're more alike than we are different. I mentioned before that female characters are often "judged," well, some of the biggest "judges" are other women—unfortunately. Anyway, I invite you to seek out some feelings and examples from women in the industry. Have you ever looked at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media? Or, perhaps viewed the documentary, Miss Representation? Great resources and information. ...And, Mentorless.com's "HDTWI: 100 Characters" PDF will be emailed to you shortly, "HDTWI" stands for "How Did They Write It." ...Oh, I meant to tell you, I started reading your script "Gwen"—really great stuff, Bill. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

While, yes, we are dealing with "fantasy" or fiction or storytelling, we still are reflecting and capturing society, culture, universal truths, relationships and humanity, yes? Film, art, music, anything artistic and expressive has an impact on culture, on society, or reflects the real world, or makes a comment, or delivers a message, right? What is storytelling but tales of humanity, tales about the human experience. :)

Bill Costantini

Beth - oh yeah...I'm very familiar with Geena Davis' group, and other groups, like the MDSCI group at USC. I've always been a supporter of equality for all because I was raised that way, and because I've always had strong women in my life (and people from all races and ethnic groups in my life as well). In America, we're still luckier than most - although at times it might not seem that way - compared to many countries around the world, where equal rights and human rights are still very primitive and even non-existent. Imagine being born a woman in places like Iran, Lebanon or Syria. From the perspective of any American....that's frightening. Thanks for the compliments on Gwen. I think we're getting closer to a sale on that story. She was certainly a trailblazer in many ways, and quite an inspirational person for all people - men and women; Americans and non-Americans; and people of all colors. She really did help change the world, and it was an honor for me to write that script.

Doug Nelson

I’m sorry but I just don’t seem to get it…it’s a non-issue to me. I basically have 100 pages or so to paint my story so I must be as concise and vibrant in my character imagery as I can. Absolutely no personal rudeness is intended whatsoever but if you must read negativity into it – that’s your baggage, not mine.

Stuart Wright

This is a none issue in many senses and points more to just lazy, unimaginative writing... Angela Hayes introduction in Alan Ball's American Beauty would be lampooned by this twitter campaign, but in the 'context' of the script it's very apt. Equally, Jungle Julia in QT's Death Proof is highly sexualised female character intro vs Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction where barely a hair on her head is mentioned in her intro ... Character intro's are problematic full stop imho... A favourite is Denzil Washington's character Skipp at the start of Flight - then again that whole screenplay is a joyous read. Whereas the attractive, handsome, sexy, beauty labels given to characters in poor scripts are just poor writing ... Writers need to think about their story needs rather than jump at the chance to perv I guess... I say this under the assumption it's largely men doing these bad female intros or are female writers as equally guilty of the same thing?

Stuart Wright

Casablanca ... Rick's character description is to the point

Stuart Wright

Casablanca - Ilsa is equally brief

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, I'd argue about that. There is a difference between the amount of sexual language used by male writers verses female. The other difference is in how woman are portrayed, which starts on the page. Yes, of course, some female writers do similar things—as I noted earlier within this thread. All this stuff stems from larger societal issues that effects both genders. I couldn't believe the blatant sexism in a stupid movie like PIXELS—marketed to children. Nonetheless, great writing from any writer, no matter their gender, will write whatever best serves the story.

Beth Fox Heisinger

I wanted to add we probably should consider that this is a male dominated industry. I don't mean to throw that out in any "accusatory" manner, not at all, just as fact. These conversations are a bit skewed because the volume of work we are discussing or reviewing is rather one-sided, just by sheer numbers. There are far more scripts written by male writers than female. Women accounted for just 11 percent of writers working on the top 250 films of 2014, and that 79% of these films had no female writers at all. Without a full sense of "inclusion," or the benefit of different points of view, particularly from women, it's really hard to make any judgements. Note that I'm the only woman commenting on this thread. I find that very interesting, even confusing, sad.

Jorge J Prieto

Talk about, causality, this thread comes in the heals, when I 'm writing my second female protagonist and I'm really having a bit of a hard time describing her, so I basically stay away from her physical appearance and let the other characters describe her, by telling her how she needs to change, etcetera. Anyway, thanks everyone. BETH, you are the best. We are lucky to have you.

Bill Costantini

Beth - as always, I do appreciate your comments and presence here.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh Bill, thanks, but I don't mean to make any of this about me, per se — God no! I'm just making note that in a discussion about female characters I find it interesting that we have mostly men commenting. There has been some fantastic advice throughout this thread about how to approach writing and developing characters. It certainly helps me. ;)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Here's an intro that cracked me up, because I know a lot of women like this... It's from BUTTER, written by Jason Micallef: "This is LAURA PICKLER and her age is none of your business."

Fiona Faith Ross

BFH, I haven't commented because I'm not sure what to say. I don't even know how we would tackle this problem, especially since "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", so often, although the top actresses have universal appeal, by definition. The fact that someone even has to write a blog post about it is kinda confounding. I have several female lead characters. I don't think I've ever used the word "beautiful" as a character handle. As others have said, it shouldn't even be necessary. Imagine if the writers of, say the Indiana Jones franchise, had written, "The doors closed behind the handsome, devastatingly hot, rugged-looking Indiana, as the giant boulder rumbled towards him." Like an awesome six-pack is gonna save a hero in a life-death situation. Or maybe it does. What do I know?

Beth Fox Heisinger

Jorge, send me your email address through private messaging and I'll send you a pdf compilation of 100 character intro/descriptions from various films — it's a "How Did They Write It" list from Mentorless.com. I checked yesterday and it seems to be no longer available on their site. Perhaps it would be helpful to you.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, Fiona! Always wonderful to pick your brain. Lol! Yeah, I totally agree, I find this whole thing bizarre, confusing, unnecessary, annoying... When you turn the table on male characters, as you so wonderfully did with Indiana Jones, it becomes very apparent how ridiculous this can be—of course, this is purely hyperbolic just to make a point. I mean, when you read in the script for Boogie Nights, a story centered in the porn industry—I just glanced over the first couple of pages—the characters are hardly described, it seems very odd to see such sexual descriptions within stories where sex is not relevant nor part of the story. Name, age, perhaps what they are wearing (nothing "hot" or "sexy"), is all that's used to describe characters in Boogie Nights. Their sexuality is expressed through their actions and dialogue.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh good! It is available. Thanks CJ! :) Hmmm, I must have made some mistake... I looked yesterday using the url listed on the pdf and it came up "not found." Mentorless.com also has other compilations that I found very helpful. :)

Stuart Wright

Mia Wallace defined by marcellus's want to protect her ... Good example in pulp fiction

Fiona Faith Ross

@BFH hahahahahahahalolololololhahahahahaha! I love inverting things. Now, everyone, if you'll excuse me, I MUST get off S32. I want to get two more chapters out tonight.

Jorge J Prieto

Thanks, Beth. I got it, through, CJ link. Thanks a million, CJ!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Great Jorge! Do check out the other compilations they offer. I have another one with 420 script examples taken from 25 scripts. It's their "How Did They Write It? Learn How To Write What You Have In Mind." :) Thanks for sharing those examples from Pulp Fiction, Stuart. ;)

Doug Nelson

So, Beth; when wearing my producer/director hat, who would I audition for the LAURA PICKLER part? The age issue is part of her personality but I have no visual to work with. Do I call for a 20 year old actor – a 40 year old, a 50 year old? Is she a hot-bod tease, a shopping cart street lady, a socialite high brow? Some of this will become clearer in the script but when tagging it for a casting director or wardrobe – it’s a bit more problematic. Hopefully you understand my question as I’m certainly not trying to be rude or flippant at all.

Bill Costantini

Crikey - I clicked on CJ's link, sent in my email address and got the "How to be a Day Trader" e-book. I've lost $40,000 on orange juice futures in the last hour. CJ - I'd sure appreciate if you can send one or two of your vintage muscle cars from the 1960's over....just for....uh...."research purposes."

Stuart Wright

Jungle Julia is not so subtle

Stuart Wright

From QTs Deathproof

Beth Fox Heisinger

Doug, no worries. I think a character's age, lifestyle, world view, would be apparent through the action/dialogue. The LAURA PICKLER character is obviously a woman who's obsessed with youth and perfection, as some women who are slowly approaching their 40s/50s (starting as young as 35) often are. Women in their late thirties don't like to be asked how old they are—yet another societal issue. Apparently women shouldn't age, or look "old," at least in Hollywood. Lol! LAURA PICKLER'S age is crystal clear to me with that character description. The film BUTTER was released in 2011. So, she, Jennifer Garner/Laura Pickler, was/is in her late 30s. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

I have to say, the film BUTTER really cracks me up because I grew up in the Midwest. One of my best friends back in high school was crowned "Miss Dairy" and they carved a bust of her head out of butter. And put it on full display at various county fairs. It was the weirdest thing! Absolutely hilarious! Talk about feeling chagrined... We kept joking about cutting off its nose, or leaving it out of the cooler so it would melt. But, hell, they'd probably just carve another one! So, she had to smile and wave while sitting next to the damn thing. Lol!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Doug, I've also seen male characters introduced without a specific age given, only a clue through action with little description; what they are doing and what's in their lives. I can't remember the script at this moment, sorry, but basically, it was something like: "He stands back and admires his expert pack job, a skill only men of a certain age with children possess." This is after we've read that he has kids of various ages, given as a toddler and a teen. And what's happening is that he and his family are going on vacation and he's managed to fit an enormous amount of stuff into their minivan. That instantly told me he's in his 40s. :) Of course, this sort of thing may be more common/acceptable for a spec script, as my mentor, a former VP of Development for United Artists, told me a while back; in a spec, you want your script to be a smooth, easy read. A spec has a different purpose—story above all else. Once you've hooked your reader and they love your story, and if your script is then moving on... You'll probably be asked to add in missing info for practical purposes for development, for clarity, as various people will now dissect the script for production. But again, I've seen ages omitted in shooting scripts too. Tools not rules. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, I don't know if making a pact with the Devil has anything to do with this. But then again... Lol!

Doug Nelson

I’m sorry Beth – but I still don’t get it. When I read a spec script (the only kind I receive), I really need a basic visual to pass on to casting & wardrobe. As the writer, you have a picture of the character in your mind’s eye – you need to share that. Please don’t ask me to wade through all the action/dialog just to find out what the character looks like – that’s where I find out about the inner character. A 20, 30, 50 year old woman (men too) can each be touchy about disclosing her age. How do I phrase the casting call?

Dan Guardino

Doug. Don't you do a breakdown before you start casting? I certainly wouldn't rely on just the screenwriter's opinion.

Dan Guardino

Beth, putting 40s, 50s, 60s, isn't going to affect the flow of you script. People in the business are used to reading them with that in the character's descriptions. I am not sure who you think would be offended?

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sure, I understand that, Doug. Makes perfect sense. :) However the line, "This is LAURA PICKLER and her age is none of your business," paints an absolute, succinct picture to me—and I did not write it, although I wish I had. I don't even need to know the story to know this character. That phrase gives me more information than a number could. It tells me her attitude, how she's dressed, her self-confidence issues, that she masks her age by coloring her hair, that she wears a lot of makeup. Her name "Pickler" tells me she's picky, a perfectionist, probably very uptight. Plus, the script is a comedy, so again, an image comes straight to mind. The fact that the character is basically "snubbing" the reader/audience by refusing to reveal her age is absolutely hilarious! And, sorry, but that phrase is age and gender specific. Your makeup and wardrobe people would have no problem! Lol! :) Anyway, perhaps this one line description is just one of many great examples on how to capture the essence of a character in as few words as possible.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sure, Dan, I don't disagree. Yes, of course, no one would be offended. It's just a creative choice, a style. :) At the time I was working with my mentor, and the story I was working on, we both liked it without numbers. It just worked better. My apologies if I gave the impression that using numbers is a bad thing. It's not, of course. :)

Stuart Wright

The other great thing with the Laura intro is that you could open the cast to a wider age range and see who you get that is Laura - and that could be 21 or 57... Whichever it was it'd make sense :)

Doug Nelson

Dan, yes I do a breakdown before casting and while I consider the writer’s opinion, I still need the writer’s visual up front: LAURA (18), a scant little street waif in rags or LAURA (30), a dumpy suburbanite in a house robe, LAURA (50), dressed for the opera. Just give me a visual cue – that’s all I ask for.

Beth Fox Heisinger

I'm sure in the script for BUTTER those cues are there. I assume you would read more than one line, Doug. Lol! And "Laura Pickler" was cast perfectly and at the perfect age—Jennifer Garner. Sorry, guys, 20s makes no sense. The youngest would be 35. Here's the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chf0ze80F3w. :)

Candra Adams

Well, I often leave out any unnecessary visuals (but if I have an actor in mind will put a bit in) so in one of my faves I describe the female lead as a wispy blonde with fire in her eyes. I have an actress in mind who fits that bill. But I've worked with a certain male writer who will go on about a male's inner qualities and for the female, well, she's busty or boyish and typically horny. I always came in to create an actual person in that woman's body.

Doug Nelson

Once I have that quick visual picture, I can go on to develop the character and plot her arc – that’s what comes from reading more than one line. Without that visual clue, I may/may not go on to read more lines in your script, I just might pick up the next script on the pile. It’s not that hard – why fight it?

Beth Fox Heisinger

I give up, Doug. Creative differences. Lol! :) Perhaps look at the script for Butter. It was a 2008 Nicholl finalist. :)

Bill Costantini

I liked Butter a lot. I can see, though, how it would be a hard theater sell. Satire...lampooning traditional Midwestern values...subversive politics....a butter-sculpting contest....no pure escapism....no FX....yep...all the requirements for the 18-35 age group to avoid a film. If I recall correctly, this was one of the first films to go to PPV/VOD before or in the same week that it was released theatrically. I hope it did well in that channel. With regards to making a film for wide theatrical release, satire might be pretty dead at this point. Note to self: change new high-brow comedy to low-brow comedy. JJ said that most Nicholl award-winning screenplays don't get made into films. Given the more-serious and more-adult nature of the majority of the winning scripts, I can see why. But the vast majority - if not all - of the Nicholl Fellows are working in film and television in Hollywood. It still is a great way to get one's feet through the door and at a desk, no doubt.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Just trying to share examples of different ways to write character descriptions, folks. :) And, Butter, the script, got great reviews. The movie, not so much. Lol! :) For me, I don't find the character Laura Pickler sexist at all. That one line communicates and captures that particular character's attitude in a creative way. Sure, it's a stereotype, but a very common one, certainly in the world of women.

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy

Those are great. I love "a neighborhood girl with F#k me eyes" and "an undeniable beauty". I always tell other writers think of descriptions you can film. How does one film "F#k me eyes? Maybe she could be watching a porn movie and it could reflect off her eyes? Naah! And as far as the second one, possibly a courtroom scene to introduce the female. PROSECUTOR: Madame, you'v been described as an undeniable beauty. But to me, you're about a five. DEFENSE Your honor, I object! The District Attorney is being argumentative. MISS JOHNSON (28), is an undeniable beauty!

Bill Costantini

Stereotypes can also be good identifiers - like shortcuts to understanding - and are't always based in the culture of offensiveness and ignorance. To say "John looks like he's been around the block a few times", or "Bill, 26, a stealthy thug whose Bloods gang tatoos cover his entire torso and arms...." are pretty quick identifiers, and aren't motivated by ignorance or intolerance. They are purely quick ways to let someone know what someone or something is.

Beth Fox Heisinger

I just read over the "Jane Test" article ( Thanks CJ :) ) and while it certainly makes great points, it seems to be about Ross Putnam—who again did something that has already been done by women in the industry and getting a lot of attention. Gee, is it because he is a man? Hmmm. As a reader, I'm sure he's seen it all, as made evident by his Twitter feed. This whole "test" thing makes me uneasy... But hey, if it gets people to rethink what they are writing and how they are portraying women, perhaps it's a move in the right direction? Even though it's rather superficial at best, and ignores context, and is yet another "band aid" for larger issues, and... Sigh.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Just for fun... Here's another character description I love as it works perfectly. In FARGO the TV series, season one, this character is meant to be an enigma: "LORNE MALVO, age unknown, birth place unknown, sits behind the wheel, his breath white with frost. If he minds he doesn’t show it." Great script to read, by the way!

Dan Guardino

Description is really up to the screenwriter. If the description offends someone their script could be tossed but that is the screenwriters choice. Personally I give my main characters a little description so the reader can visualize the person in their mind. However I usually don't bother describing what they look like or what they are wearing unless it is important to the story. For example I might introduce MARY, 30s, the kind of person that knows what she wants and won't take no for an answer. If she doesn't have to have long slender legs so she can run away from a perverted screenwriter I don't mention that. I usually give an age range because I know it help speed up the development process but it really isn't necessary. If it is good story that is the most important thing. The person doing the breakdown which I hope isn't me will do a more detailed description of the characters. So do whatever you want just don't describe your Italian characters as your "typical mob types" or I'll have some of my relatives go straighten you out. LOL!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Here's two female character descriptions for comparison: "JESSICA (17) chases after MOLLY (9). Jessica’s skinny, wears glasses, a hipster T-shirt. In five years, she’s going to make all the boys’ heads spin. But not yet." And: "JAYDEN, 15, in worn jeans and high-tops with scribbles all over them, sits on the floor surrounded by all her belongings, drawing in a sketchbook, fixated on a dead roach lying on its back a few feet away." I really don't care for the first description. Sure, it works; it's creative; it's written well; it paints a picture; it tells you she's going to be "hot;" that she's perhaps a 'diamond in the rough'—of course, if you think attractiveness is of top importance and how men perceive a woman or if they find her attractive is what defines her and gives her value. No thanks, I'd rather know about HER personality; the hipster T-shirt and glasses sounded great!—then they lost me. The second description is far better to me. It tells me more about the character and WHO SHE IS, her personality, her interests; she's an artist not just a potential "hottie." :)

John Garrett

Beth, I find that interesting. The fact that she will turn boys heads means something to me. I knew girls like that growing up. One sticks in my brain. Because looking at her, we were 13 at the time, I knew she would be beautiful (physically) one day. But then it was as if her entire body was growing at different rates and she did not know she would be beautiful. I knew. I told her on a fall day at the edge of her very large yard and she laughed at me. She wanted very much to be beautiful, like a princess in a story. But she was just an awkward girl of 13 with braces and hair that did it's own thing. That summer I also knew another girl that I never thought would look stunning, but I adored her. She kissed me once before she left for the summer. She came back a different creature. She had gone from much too skinny to a little thin, changed her hair, had contacts instead of glasses, and wore clothes that fit her build. She never did kiss me again. There is something in that, to me, that speaks more deeply than just that she would grow into a "hot chick" and I cannot really speak to why, but it does.

Stuart Wright

Scriptnotes cover the more general point of character intros as a result of this debate/issue ... It's a very good thing

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, context is everything. I just thought those two examples were interesting to compare.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Also, yes, John, I totally get what you are saying, and that character is from "Crazy Stupid Love," a romantic/comedy/drama. The description works well, as I said, I was just sharing my take on it. "Making boys' heads spin" implies sex appeal. ;)

Stuart Wright

The boys or men notice her is a common trope ... Minghella uses it for Kidman's character in Cold Mountain

Beth Fox Heisinger

I'll have to listen to that particular Scriptnotes podcast, Stuart. Thanks for sharing. ;) Is it "Sexy But Doesn't Know It?"

Dan Guardino

People that really make movies don't care how you describe your character.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, it is a common trope... It's tiring—in general.

Anthony Cawood

Every screenwriter should listen to Scriptnotes!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, I care. I care very much about craft, about what I'm doing or trying to do or saying in my work. Beyond that... Who knows.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, totally agree, Anthony!

Anthony Cawood

It's a podcast Victor, hosted by Craig Maizin and John August, two working and very successful screenwriters in Hollywood, informative and very funny!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Okay, so I'm listening to the podcast right now... It's great—as always. I love that they call this a mix of "clumsy sexism and bad writing." They then read Oscar nominated scripts in the same way, using "Jane" and "Jack" and the difference is clear. Great writers don't really have this clumsy mix... They were surprised when they compiled descriptions for their own comparison and a lot of top scripts do not have physical descriptions at all. But they then take it a step further and talk about how to avoid tropes, in others words, bad writing. "We are aware, that generally speaking, men and women in movies are better looking than the rest of us..... If their physical beauty is not mission critical to the story then I'm not even sure we need to say it anymore...." What cracked me up was, "If you think "moms" are gross then you're not grown up enough to write a screenplay." Lol! ...Anyway, it's a good listen! They give great advice. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh, and another great point in the podcast: "Check your biases. You're suppose to care about your characters."

Fiona Faith Ross

I adore Hollywood. I love the sunshine and the "world's yer oyster" expansiveness and the creative buzz and I can't wait to get out there for another stint to scope out screenwriters and hang out with them. Any suggestions? I'm lookin' at you, Universe. Should I start a new thread with this Q. rather than hijack Bill's?

Anthony Cawood

Don't worry Victor, Hollywood itself doesn't make an appearance in the podcast, just two erudite and opintionated screenwriters who share their knowledge on a weekly basis.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sorry, another great point... "Sexism is boring. Don't ever be boring." Okay, I'm done! I'm done. LOL! :)

Dan Guardino

Beth I agree with you but I just wanted to make a point that this topic seems to be more about what writers think but a lot of times what writers think has very little to do with what is important to those people making movies.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sure, Dan, makes sense. But wouldn't a producer or filmmaker want a well-crafted story and screenplay from which to make a film? It all starts on the page, does it not? :)

Dan Guardino

Sure they want a well-crafted story. However when it comes to character's description you only need a brief description so they can put a picture of that character in their mind. That is what Doug said he wanted to see when he read the script and I think most producers just want the minimum. Those people that go on and on describing how a women looks should be writing novels instead of screenplays because people that read screenplays already know what a woman looks like without a screenwriter telling them.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Okay, sorry... Another point that was interesting to me in the podcast—which touches on some of Dan's comments—that as a director or producer/reader; "I don't care about how super sexy hot she is... if that comes out of a relationship or the actions of the film then that's sexuality expressing itself the way that it does in the world... If you're going to use "news bulletins" (to describe) then think about how to use that... Use important specificity to the nature of that story"—hair, makeup and wardrobe! (Doug's point earlier within the thread.) In the podcast they used a character description from the script CONCUSSION as one example. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, again, makes perfect sense, Dan. You'll get no argument from me regarding the importance of brevity.

John Garrett

So, I had to go back and check how I am introducing characters. I suspect I am not giving enough information. I try to write them through action and dialogue. Not much on physical description at all. This is across the board with only one exception being a female character. "she is short and petite with casual grace" is the most physical description I have in the screenplays I have written.

Bill Costantini

LENA PERU (26), a thin Ecuadorian-American princess, is a Marianismo soubrettee. She is a hardboiled Pollyanna, part-tomboy, part-vixen zombie with a heart of gold who loves oysters. Do you think "who loves oysters" is kinda overkill?

Doug Nelson

My Momma taught me to never argue with a fence post all night. You give a quick visual up front or you don't; I'll produce your film, or I won't. Doug has left the building.

Dan Guardino

@ Bill. That is perfect.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, I'm not sure who or what is the post in that metaphor, but in an industry where creative intent and subjectivity prevails, perhaps one can go around, climb over, or find just the right fence post. No need to argue. ;) Best to you, Doug!

Dan Guardino

Darn you Beth! I really wanted to send one of my scripts to him.

Michael Wearing

My favourite female character of all time was Tootsie...

Bill Costantini

FENCE POST, (AGE AND SEX UNKNOWN), is strong, proud and impenetrable to the pesty mites buzzing around. Its tenacious enamel coating matches its mighty interior. A wisened treasure guarder who has seen a lot of things, and a gentle giant who takes no bull from anyone.

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy

Doug left the building? Well... Is he coming back?

Jorge J Prieto

Bill, is that a character from, The Green Mile?

Bill Costantini

Jorge - it could be. Or it could be a solitary fence post I came upon once while visiting a Utah ghost town. Do you know how sad it is to see a lonely fence post like that, while imagining the life that once surrounded it? It was still a beautiful solid piece of wood, so I dug it up. When I got to the bottom, there was a piece of metal underneath it. So I started digging around that, and unearthed a metal locker. I opened it, and it was packed with guns, bullets and food. As it turns out, it wasn't a fence post at all, but a marker for a Survivalist's hidden cache, which is evidently quite common in parts of the country. So I took everything and went on my way. The moral of my story: please pack some mustard in those hidden caches. Old Spam gets a little dry.

Michael L. Burris

Sounds like something in the first True Detective series on HBO.

Michael L. Burris

My thought process on what is sexy; not sexist in today’s world of woman sensitivity to character. Almost all Nicole Kidman characters: A woman, (Mid thirties, early forties) exudes interchanging femininity with a dash of innocent girl, a good amount of tenacity and tones of traditional sexiness which is sometimes known and sometimes unknown to self. If this be a sexist description so be it but I consider it a strong woman lead character for an innumerable number of roles. It is generic in a sense but I consider it good. Written By: Michael L. Burris Used periodically throughout years of screenplay, teleplay writing in various forms.

Candra Adams

Beth, it is an unfortunate truth that it usu. takes an "insider" to be considered a whistleblower. I have to say that I prefer European movies because the women in them look real and to me more easy to relate to, care for and even, yes, sexier. There was a movie (I won't name names ) with one American actress amongst Europeans. She (American) had her face lifted and lifted, and probably botoxed. The European women looked like women of their age. They had expressions, and this made them immeasurably more beautiful to me. Poor kids nowadays will think that as you get older you lose your expressiveness and your face gets bigger. As a child I loved being with my great grandmother and her friends. I considered their soft, wrinkly skin beautiful and a sign of a well lived life full of emotions. Now that I'm an adult, I fight with that, having been somewhat brainwashed myself. Anyway, I prefer terms like "attractive" or "sexy" to pretty or beautiful because there's more of an inner life. i.e. Ellen Barkin is always very sexy but does not have the classical beautiful features.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Candra, yes, I love European movies/TV too. I'm always watching foreign films on Netflix. I watch a lot of BBC. Characters seem more authentic, realistic, the female/male ratio is better, wider variants of characters, more varied ages, types, etc. :) Personally, I could care less about "attractiveness" in characters. Overtly "sexy" is boring. I prefer characters who are comfortable in their own skin. ;)

Elisabeth Meier

Beth, exactly. So do I and I think if all actresses were really comfortable in their own skin they would be much more successful like a Melissa McCarthy for example as feeling comfortable this way makes the acting of a person much more authentic which is the direct way to the viewers emotions.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Peter, because they do! It's the difference in the TYPES of women shown—natural, in the sense that they seem like "real people" not supermodels. And I'm certainly not talking about telenovas or American soap operas, which is a whole different thing, a different industry, really. Anyway, it's also the difference in the wider variety of roles. It's the difference in how women are portrayed—more authentically, equally, fairly. Plus there's more female leading characters—and characters who are 35 and older!!!! Female characters are frumpy, disheveled, broken, unique, well-rounded, funny, smart, gross, etc, just like their wonderful fellow male characters. They're not "eye candy." When I say European, I'm referring to BBC, Dutch programs, Swedish programs, Spanish, German.... I'm not afraid of subtitles! A great British series that I loved was "Happy Valley." It's on Netflix. Also, "Prime Suspect" starring Helen Mirren—talk about an actress who's comfortable in her own skin! "Dicte" which is a Danish series about a reporter who returns to her hometown and finds herself at odds with the police. There's so many more...

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh, "Run" is another British series—gritty, dark, very sad. Always love Olivia Colman. It also stars Lennie James, among others. And, "Five Days" and "The Body Farm" both have leading female characters. I've been watching more British series because they're readily available. "River" was great too. Very touching. It stars Stellan Skarsgard and Nicola Walker—really loved her. I'm always searching for fresh options on Netflix.

Beth Fox Heisinger

I wanted to add, obviously beauty/handsomeness will always be a part of this industry. Period. But what I think is interesting is when beauty perhaps is a hindrance. For example, when an actress does something completely opposite from what she's known for, as in beauty, her talent outshines her good looks. Charlize Theron and Halle Berry are both extremely talented and gorgeous. Both took on a role that was gritty, dark and ugly. Theron completely masked her beauty in "Monster." Berry has never been so gritty and raw as in "Monster's Ball." Both performances were outstanding. Both received academy awards and critical acclaim. It's as if they needed to do something shocking, surprising, to snap everyone out of their reverie and take notice of their raw talent. This has been the case for male actors too. Anyway, I certainly look at these two ladies in a whole different light because of those two films. I'm in awe—not because of their good looks. :)

Elisabeth Meier

Well, Peter, East European women quite sure can't be taken as an example for the European women in general. Those working in medias mostly copy the Barbie style completely - just my point of view. All I said is that they seem to be more comfortable in their individual look and use less botox and beauty surgeries than US women in media.

Bill Costantini

May the heavens continue to bless writer/director/producers like Oliver Stone. His films don't require excessive sexualizations of his female leads. One of his last films, Savages, featured both Salma Hayek and Blake Lively in prominent roles, and both characters were dynamic and complex. A lot of great actresses appear in his films, and their characters are always dynamic and complex. At any element or level of writing and filmmaking...I can never say enough great things about Oliver Stone. He is one of the best of all time.

Jorge J Prieto

I don't care what anyone says, I still love, Meryl Streep, today as much as the first time I watched her in her first role in Holocaust the mini-series, back in mid 70's. She is a true American talent and a beautiful woman, no matter how old she is. Nothing is more sexy, than an intelligent women. You Beth, Elizabeth and all the women of Stage 32 are included in that category.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Meryl Streep is transcendent. Plus, she does a lot for women, both inside and outside the industry. ;)

Bill Costantini

I know I've said this before about Meryl Streep, but it bears repeating. Meryl Streep was John Cazale's girlfriend in the 1970's. John Cazale was the great actor that all of the New York actors most admired (from Hackman to Pacino...everyone), and is the only actor in history to have every single film that he was in be nominated for best film Oscars (The Deerhunter, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Godfather, Parts I - III.) He was dying of cancer, and his parts for The Deer Hunter were shot first, and he died shortly thereafter, and before the film was finished. Ms. Streep, in her late 20's and not quite famous yet (The Deer Hunter was just her second role), took care of Mr. Cazale until he took his last breaths. Al Pacino said of her devotion to him: "I've hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for that man was overwhelming." What a great actress, and what a great person Meryl Streep is. RIP, John Cazale.

Jorge J Prieto

Wow, Bill, I didn't know that. Meryl, what a human being! Thanks, Bill.

Candra Adams

Bill, thanx for sharing that. always was a huge fan of Meryl Streep, she's quite amazing. Beth- I agree with sexy being someone who's comfortable in their own skin which is why I consider Helen Mirren and other European women sexier. Peter - I couldn't disagree with you more. I happen to be a 1st. gen. american from a Hungarian family (LOVE the Hungarians). And I tend to have European friends. European women are more secure in themselves (not the fake "I'm superior to you, but the real security) and as Beth said they have women of all ages and types. PLUS in European movies when a woman just wakes up or is in the wilderness starving, she looks like it.

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