Screenwriting : Specifying Race in a Character Description by Melinda M. Dus

Melinda M. Dus

Specifying Race in a Character Description

What's the take on identifying a character's race in the description? Typically I leave the character description open to allow any actor to fill the role, now I'm wondering if I need to specify race. Thoughts?

Damon Smith

I do as you do, leave it open for interpretation unless race is a specific issue or character trait. Never had any critiques against it personally. I would guess it's more at the discretion of the reader.

Pierre Langenegger

The only time I will specify race is if it's important to the story. In one of my stories, the protag travels to Indonesia so I specify race for the main characters that he has to deal with there.

Melinda M. Dus

Thanks Damon and Pierre, this is helpful!

Patrick Freeman

Just because I'm so freaking bored with Hollywood's obsession with white people I usually create a few key characters who are not white. And then I specify, either directly or by the character's name, such as Chow, Singh, Alvarez, etc. And there are numerous corresponding actors I'd love to work with so I usually picture them while I'm writing. In the end, though, if Hollywood gets a hold of your script - Johnny Depp will end up playing Tonto. So what difference does it make?

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Melinda, I am a playwright and I've been a reader for playwright festivals. I have RARELY seen a stage play that specified race. In my plays, I will also note "open casting" (meaning that the role of the cop / psychic / teacher, etc. could be played by male, female, any age, any race).

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Lisa, I do NOT work for Samuel French; I just buy books there. But definitely go back to the URL and put your questions to the webmaster. That would be the correct person who can give you an answer. And then I hope you'll let us know.

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Lisa, the Samuel French Short Play Fest, estab in 1975, is the grand-daddy of the short play competitions. To win is to get major attention AND Samuel French can publish your work and sell it. Most playwrights have submitted and tried to win. I'm on the mailing list, so I'm not familiar with the website. I realize many people hawk their books, merchandise, services here -- -- so let me clarify to all that I am not affiliated with Samuel French and I do not benefit if anyone submits.

James David Sullivan

I agree with Dan. If race is an essential part of your story, mention it. Consider a white person playing the role of MLK Jr. - just doesn't work. If race is irrelevant, don't put it in your script.

Kristopher Rickards

I use a similar technique to Patrick Freeman, where I will give a character the name Jan Milosz to imply a Polish man. But if a character is named Mohammed, I feel it necessary to drop in the fact he is Lebanese due to the name's popularity.

CJ Walley

The problem a lot of us have is this I see white people syndrome issue where we write characters as white unless stated otherwise. It's bad form and it becomes even more offensive when we make the mistake of trying to add a bit of colour by throwing in a few minorities, many of which are horrifically stereotyped. Been there, done it, got the United Colors of Bennetton t-shirt. Imagine your script got into the hands of a talented actor and they love it, then they get part way in and realise that, in your eyes, they are only good enough for your supporting characters or a comedic side-show. Race needs to stay out unless relevant. That's not to say we can't use it, be comedic about it, work with stereotypes, or even be crass about it. We just have to wind back and think about what we are doing. Same goes for gender. When it comes to minor characters, It's cool if we can not jump to stereotypes or leave the door open. Firemen can be firefighters and nurses can be referred to as he rather than she.

James David Sullivan

Almost all minor characters have to be stereotypes; not of race, gender, etc., but they are sketches (by definition) and will end up only partially drawn. Whenever you put in a backstory to a major character, you're going to have to think about such things, and that needs to be consistent with the type of things someone would do or be. If the gender or race is important to the character, put it in. If not, don't.

Abdulai Barrie

all depend on the individual that play the role

James David Sullivan

@Abdulai - Well said!

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

lol. This guy...

Marc W. Johnson

Hey Melinda - one way I have found to disclose a characters race is through their name and, their dialogue. However, descriptively, I have used something similar - "JEAN-PAUL, (mid-30's), has a nasty scar that runs down his right cheek from his childhood in Port Au Prince." I don't see anything wrong with that, it gives the reader and actor some quick background and is descriptive. That sentence also plays on stereotypes, just because the person grew up in Haiti, doesn't mean they are black but, since 95% of Haiti is black, it's a good bet the character is. On the other hand, "JEAN-PAUL, (mid-30's), a Parisian Chef with a noticeable burn scar on his hand, cooks a crepe." What's the stereo type pic that pops in the head? Is Jean-Paul White, Black, or Muslim? That depends on who reads it. ;-). As I said, I personally, do not see anything wrong with a quick descriptive that eludes to race, let the reader fill in the blanks and, get a clearer pic through the characters actions and dialogue. Anyway, just my take. Best

James Chalker

What a scary little world Peter lives in, filled with Diversity Dragoons and Politically Correct Thought Police. Actually, I tried to enlist in the Diversity Dragoons once, but they said, "go away bald white man; we don't want you here!" Then they all rode off on their fine white horses, with their sabres flashing in the golden sunlight. Reverse racism can be so cruel.

James Chalker

I don't write race into my character descriptions, except when it is relevant. Of course people may reasonably differ on when it is relevant. I also understand that a writer could have some concern that the producer(s)/director(s) will just default to whitey for all the good roles.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Melinda, please be wary of the Peter Coreys of the world.

Beth Fox Heisinger

How can we effect change in the industry if we don't even challenge it on the page? Yes, of course, everything should be relevant to the story. Yes. Of course. Got it. But, pushing against stereotypes creates a better read, does it not? Your writing becomes more original, yes? Do make secondary characters female. Do hint at specificity, like race. Sure, it may not end up that way on screen but do it any way! Because... it might end up on screen as written! It does matter to call out random characters; a scientist or cop or teacher or whatever as "she." Take responsibility. Stop being apathetic to this issue. Stop perpetrating gender bias and racial stereotypes. We're better than that, are we not?

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, Peter, I'm sure Melinda will and she is more than capable.

Melinda M. Dus

Thanks everyone! The debate of view points is very helpful. It's the lead character that I've always envisioned as mixed race. I don't come out and say it. It's not the story's focus, but it is one of many pieces integral to the character. I'm doing my umpteenth rewrite/polish...

Beth Fox Heisinger

Melinda, that sounds great. Perhaps do consider defining the main character as you envision, especially if it is integral. Could add wonderful, multiple layers to that character. Whatever you decide, I wish you the best with your story. :)

Jeff Johnson

I generally specify ethnicity. There's nothing inherently wrong with it, and with the countless types of character and dialogue to work with, it might to be best to just consider the voice itself. Who is this character? Where do they come from? What is their story? What is their voice? Every writer leaves the self open for criticism. Be brave. Bring your characters to life.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

Dan, a producer would consider a Korean-American actor if you specify Korean-American in your script, because that's the character they will be reading about. Somewhere down the line it might change, or it might not. But if you don't specify the race, then it's a white guy by default. It starts with the script.

William Martell

Two words: Ulmer Scale. When it comes to casting leads, there are a couple of different lists based on worldwide box office and some other factors that are critical in making decisions. The Ulmer Scale is one of them. If the screenwriter writes a character as Korean, let's say, that means nothing when it comes to casting... because it's all going to be about casting the biggest name star in the role. Even if their intention is to cast a Korean, they pull out their Ulmer Scale and look for the Korean stars and what their ratings are (it goes 1 to 100, with 100 being Will Smith or whoever is the #1 star in the world at the time.) (that was a poorly constructed sentence, Will Smith is not the default.) So if the highest rated Korean actor is a solid 30, they ditch the whole Korean thing and look for a star in the upper quarter of the list who is available and cast them. Choosing actors for roles is a business decision, not a creative one. And not a political/social one. It's all about who will sell the most tickets. It's done using, you know, math. (Though I don't know where he lands on the Ulmer Scale, Sung Kang (who is from Georgia) would be a good gamble for a Korean male lead. Problem here would be: I don't think he would sell enough tickets as the only star of a big budget movie, so the film's budget would have to be adjusted down... which may have an impact on script and story. You hope with actors like this that they have that "breakout role" where they get promoted from being in the ensemble in a big movie to being the #2 lead in a big movie... and then they knock it out of the park. Or maybe that an IP that requires a Korean lead (if Amadeus Cho joins THE AVENGERS comic book movies and then gets spun off on his own series... which probably isn't likely if they aren't going to give Scarlett Johansson her own movie) and it's the IP that's the star, boosting whoever stars. For now, Sung Kang is in the FAST & FURIOUS ensemble and landing a bunch of supporting roles in other films because of that.)

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

I see what you're saying, William. Yeah, it's a difficult industry to crack. But the fact that the producer even looked for a Korean person is the point. The producer looked, said "No, too much of a risk, we'll go with someone higher on the scale", but they looked. And that's the point. Maybe the actor will stay in their head for another role. Maybe they'll give him the role of a supporting character in the same film. It's a lot of "maybe", but it's an opening for minority actors that wouldn't have been there if you didn't specify the race in the script. And films that want to lean toward low-budget that can't afford big named actors, their Ulmer Scale will have a lot more minorities to choose from. So if you specify it in a low budget film, there's more of a possibility you may actually get that minority in your film. I think. These are all opinions. Nothing concrete here.

Richard Toscan

A reasonable rule: specify race for a character if it's critical to the story you're telling.

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Beth wrote: "How can we effect change in the industry if we don't even challenge it on the page?" My approach: I make the protagonist FEMALE; I focus on writing powerful roles for an ACTRESS. My first one-act play had a cast of 5 -- 5 females. I wrote it when I was 9 yrs old and my play was produced in NYC when I was 10 yrs old. That set me off on the path of creating more roles for females.

Patrick Freeman

I love your attitude LindaAnn and I Iove strong, smart female characters. If they are women of color, so much the better. Unfortunately Hollywood doesn't seem to share that sentiment. So quality roles are few and far between. Some of my favorites include Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife, Jennifer Lopez in Enough, Halle Berry in Die Another Day, Angelina Jolie in Salt, and Michelle Rodriguez in anything she does.

LindaAnn Loschiavo

@ Patrick: my family introduced me to Italian opera when I was 2 yrs old. Operas are often centered around a powerful female; I carried that expectation with me. When I didn't see it on screen or stage, the only solution was to be the change I wanted to see in the world. Still agitating -- on the page. LOL!

Patrick Freeman

"Italian Opera" is a redundant term. There is no other kind of any consequence. I have a degree in music so I've listened to more than my share. German just isn't for singing, unless it's drinking songs or something. And French? Well, I'm convinced that the French language exists just so they can beat us at scrabble. But with Italian (and some Spanish) you don't have to be fluent to get what they're singing about. It'll reach right into your chest and grab your heart.

LindaAnn Loschiavo

@ Patrick: Here's how my father introduced me, a 2-year-old tot, to soprano Licia Albanese, his idol - (yes, that's me, standing next to her at Lincoln Center, NYC) -- - http://www.lideamagazine.com/remembering-great-licia-albanese/

Patrick Freeman

That's a beautiful tribute. When I was in college I studied voice with Sarah McFerrin, the mother of Bobby McFerrin (don't worry be happy). Unfortunately I waited until her last semester before retirement. I didn't learn a thing. Not because she had nothing to teach but because she didn't bother. Whatever I sang she'd say, "That was nice." Gee thanks. I knew then that I wasn't great. I know now that I probably wasn't even very good. But the wind was all out of her sails by then. What a waste. Fortunately Ms. Albanese kept it up until the end.

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Patrick, Licia was still mentally alert at 99 yrs old. Licia gave opera lovers a gift by getting behind the Puccini Foundation. Opera has is place in my forthcoming book "Flirting with the Fire Gods," featuring Luisa Tetrazzini, et al. Thank you for reading my tribute, Patrick!!!

James David Sullivan

Isn't there a bounty out for anyone involved in an opera?

James David Sullivan

I agree. And insufferable! 9 out of 10 terrorists prefer water-boarding to being subjected to an opera! ;-)

LindaAnn Loschiavo

No, JD, 9 out of 10 terrorists prefer water-boarding to being subjected to listening to Madonna speaking about herself to reporters. You have not suffered until you've endured a press conference with Madonna. That chalk-on-a-blackboard voice!!! OMG!!!!

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Kathryn Rushent - - our very wonderful wit!!! Brava!!

James David Sullivan

Madonna does opera, by the way. ("Evita")

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Mae West sang an opera aria, too. In "Goin' to Town" [1935] MAE WEST's character (Cleo Borden) decides to impress her party guests by "throwing an opera." Envisioning herself as a seductress, Mae (hilariously costumed as Delilah) performs an erotic French aria by Camille Saint-Saëns: "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix." http://maewest.blogspot.com/2008/07/annual-mae-west-gala.html

James David Sullivan

Now, that's opera at its finest!

Joseph Chastain

Evita is not an opera, it's a musical. Opera doesn't use microphones. That's the difference if you ever wondered (I sing in both)

LindaAnn Loschiavo

Fun facts on Mae West: she never used a microphone (even when performing on Broadway, a theatre with 1,700 seats). Mae West never had an understudy. Mae West only missed 2 performances; once she had the flu and the other time she broke her ankle.

Richard Gustason

If the role calls for it, then yes put race into it. If not, then don't. Really simple actually.

James David Sullivan

@Joseph Chastain - According to the New York Times: "Here’s the difference: Both genres seek to combine words and music in dynamic, felicitous and, to invoke that all-purpose term, artistic ways. But in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first. " Apparently the New York Times doesn't think microphones have anything to do with it. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/theater/musical-or-opera-the-fine-line...

James David Sullivan

@Joseph Chastain - You probably need to contact the makers of the cast recording and let them know they have incorrectly titled the album : "Evita: An Opera Based On The Life Story Of Eva Peron 1919-1952 (1976 Studio Cast) Cast Recording" http://www.amazon.com/Evita-Opera-Based-1919-1952-Studio/dp/B000002P4G

Allen Clark

I believe in some cases specifics are required. For example I have a role in which an older woman was needed for and they needed to be fair skin or Latina. The reason for this was because of the specifics of what the lady had gone through to become a dancer joining ballet companies that didn't have anyone that were of her ethnicity to joining companies that she thrived in because of the diversity she brought culturally in dance style. On the other hand, I have roles that aren't gender or ethnically specific like a homeless person speaking of the trials and tribulations they go through living in the streets. I have used both a white male and a black female in this role and it went over well with the crowd.

Fd Lewis

Specifying Race in a Character Description? I just caught up with back episodes of Scriptnotes. In episode 180, from two weeks ago, three seasoned professionals addressed this issue in the early part of the podcast. The podcast at http://www.johnaugust.com Their comments are enlightening

Fd Lewis

In this morning mail, Stage 32 post the link to "Robert Redford Weighs in on Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: It ‘Is What Moves the Ball for Me’ " http://www.thewrap.com/robert-redford-weighs-in-hollywoods-diversity-pro... "Sundance co-founder tells TheWrap that diversity is “one of the most valuable aspects of filmmaking” and the reason he started the film festival."

Melinda M. Dus

Thanks for the links FD. Redford's comments during the first panel opening the festival were really insightful too.

Joseph Chastain

Evita was classified an Opera for marketing purposes. Phantom isn't an Opera either. They're both (bad) musicals.

James David Sullivan

@Mr. Chastain - I noticed from your profile information that you are "very interested in stories about mental health and pro wrestling as specialties." I can see how that qualifies you as an expert on operas, musicals, and their respective quality. Compared to the money Evita and Phantom made, how much more have you made on comparable projects? What awards do you have in musicals and/or operas? Have you thought of contacting Mr. Webber and Mr. Rice? I am sure they would pay you highly for your invaluable advice on how to make good musicals and/or operas. Who knows, they might be able to get you a job as a singer in one of their operas/musicals - provided you use a microphone and explain to them why Evita is not an opera.

James David Sullivan

You still haven't answered a far more important question: Do you support a United Nations imposed settlement on the Israel/Palestinian problem? According to the article, it's called an opera. You just made my case for me. Thank you very much. My credentials are: I do research, look for the most credible, and present it. And I don't live in a fantasy land when Israel can do no wrong. Whenever you want to open your eyes and see the truth, please let me know. Or are you still determined that Arabs, as you seem to like to call them, are all terrorists and that your "FINAL SOLUTION" is to kill them all. There's a man with a unique mustache who would be very proud of you.

James David Sullivan

Note to self: Some of the members of the Jewish faith will call you an idiot, schmuck, etc. if you dare to use your brains and disagree with them. Unless you blindly accept all of their doctrine, they will attack you mercilessly.

James David Sullivan

Let's say Israel picks three countries of its choice. Elected Palestinians pick three countries of their choice. The countries sit down and determine a fair solution that they agree on. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis agree to accept the solution without debate, negotiation, or discussion. Period. No fruitcake countries allowed, such as North Korea.

James David Sullivan

Here's what's on the album cover of the cast recording: "The cover had the name 'Evita' written in a cursive font across a line drawn heart and the subtitle, 'An OPERA based on the life story of Eva Peron 1919-1952' ...." [EMPHASIS ADDED since you have either missed this or refuse to read it.] That's what Webber and Rice call it. I think they know what they are talking about. So, are you claiming YOU have more credentials than they do? It is absolutely irrelevant what I know or don't know about music. I have enough sense to find out from those who wrote the piece what they called it; you conveniently wish to avoid this simple fact. The Wikipedia article was not intended to settle whether it is a musical or an opera; it's clear that they use those terms interchangeably. Didn't you learn anything along the way? Or do you just dislike admitting you were wrong to begin with?

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