Monday, July 17, 2006

Character Description

When a writer introduces a character to a screenplay, he faces a difficult decision in ‘reader exposition’ (information necessary for the script reader, not the audience at the cinema). Usually it comes down to the basic characterisation or leading traits that the character possesses and the writer wants the reader to know. But how to do this successfully without pissing the reader off?

The standard advice is to be clever and evocative, mixing a sense of their visual vibe with something from their past or a neat visual metaphor of what they’re like. What you don’t want to read is this:

“JOHN SMITH enters the bar. He’s a humble accountant, way out of his depth, but he looks like he can hold his own because of his big frame and rugged good looks.”

This kind of stuff appears in screenplays all the time but this is the bad version of reader exposition. What’s generally preferred is this:

“JOHN SMITH enters the bar. If this was a western, the joint would come to an immediate standstill. But the women certainly notice his presence and the disgruntled barflies observe him with a jealous scowl. As John heads for the counter, his big frame stumbles on a chair, a moment of embarrassment. He dusts himself off and sheepishly avoids everyone’s stare as he reaches the bar.”

This is better because it’s more visual and let’s the reader subconsciously grasp the basic characterisation of what John is like. The fact that he’s a humble accountant isn’t part of the scene, so it shouldn’t be part of his introductory description. If it is important that we know that he’s an accountant, then maybe he’s at the bar to sort out the barman’s taxes, but that too should be visualised and dramatised, not just spoon-fed to us in the description.

For the novice screenwriter, this is a small but important part of screenwriting craft that requires immediate usage. And you know what, people seem to be quite good at it. Neat, visual, clever and evocative description is everywhere these days when a new character is introduced into a screenplay. But there’s a problem. The style of description is becoming ‘samey’.

This might seem like confusing or contradictory advice but the best introduction of a new character comes with no visual description at all. Maybe just his age to help the reader when he starts to make his own mental image of what the character is like:

“JOHN SMITH (38) enters the bar.”

The neat and evocative description is all very well but the clever, creative and often amusing descriptions are becoming a distraction for two reasons.

One: they are not consistent with the character in the story. John Smith may well be a man whose eyes suggest a dark past but what’s that got to do with the romantic comedy he’s in? His tattoo that’s just visible on his right shoulder may be a cruel reminder of his time spent in juvenile prison but is it really necessary information to the road movie he’s just started?

Two: they are just clever descriptions and have no bearing on what the character is like at all because he behaves in a wholly different manner to the style in which he was introduced: “John Smith enters the bar. Here’s a guy you want for any party, always first to buy a round and even faster with a joke or witty aside.”

And then during the course of the story, John never buys a drink or makes a joke. Not once. Despite many screenwriting advice reporting this phenomenon It. Still. Happens. All. The. Time.

Another regular intro: “John Smith enters the bar. What you need to know about John is that he’s an alcoholic so he’s either here as part of his step programme, or he’s about to hit a bottle of tequila”. The ‘what you need to know’ phrase was probably used in somebody’s successful screenplay once but it’s been copied ever since. It now seems tired and lazy.

Personally, as a script reader, I don’t pay much attention to the character descriptions, whether they’re clever or not. I’m going to make up my own mind on what the character looks like, and how they behave, simply from their actions in the story. Sometimes I’ll be told beforehand what they’re going to look like - “this one stars Nic Cage” - but that just helps to associate his particular acting style to a character that may have been a bit flat or two-dimensional on the spec pile.

As a spec writer, it’s up to you whether you give the reader the basic characterisation of a new character but an introduction that includes a visual representation of the character’s main traits works better than a bland or clever quip about who they are and what they’re like.

This isn’t to say that everyone should stop writing character descriptions. This post is more a personal observation on how the spec pile seems to have embraced the accepted uniform way of introducing a character. It’s fine, it works, but if the character behaves differently or the writer has an erratic command over his creation, then all that clever description becomes redundant. Readers, just like the audience, make up their own minds about things. Show them what your characters are like. Don’t tell them.


Stephen Gallagher said...

I'll sometimes use what I call 'fantasy casting' when I'm writing a proposal for a producer I've worked with before and with whom I have an established tone of communication, but I'll never suggest cast in a script.

I always think back to Kurosawa's pretty rigorous take on screenplay -- render everything only in terms of what the audience is going to see and hear. If a bird flies across the sky, then a bird flies across the sky. Don't qualify it with talk of loneliness and desolation. Because you can't shoot either. On the screen, it's just a bird. You have to give it a context in which it'll carry the emotional freight that you intend.

So don't tell the reader that John Smith is a mean bastard. Have him slap a crippled orphan on his way over to the bar.

Or as Henry James said, "Dramatise, dramatise."

freddie said...

Hi! I only found this site a couple of days ago and have since read every article. What a wealth of information! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and knowledge.

I wonder if you might be able to help with a question regards music. Is it okay to refer to a particular song within a spec script?

For example, a scene where a character is performing a hammy impersonation of a famous singer/popular song. The tune is relevant to the mood of the scene and a few lines of the lyrics are ideal. Is it acceptable to mention the song and have the character sing a line or two of the lyrics as part of the dialogue?

Is music selection generally considered someone else's department or is it okay for the scriptwriter to make suggestions? What if a scene involves driving in a vehicle with the stereo blasting or the radio on - is that how it should be written? Or could a certain artist/song also be mentioned if it is relevant to the story?

Danny Stack said...

Thanks Freddie. And good question! I'll answer in my next post...

Anonymous said...

My fave character description is still "Tommy - rock n' roll arsonist." Was that Lawrence Kasdan? I love that hard boiled style and always try to give myself between 4 and 8 words for a character intro. Whether it works or not in terms of MY writing (in comparison to a god like Kasdan) is another matter entirely. BTW, I'm talking about "showing and not telling" amongst other things over at my blog if anybody's interested - I've even posted one of my WORST examples of telling and not showing. How about you show us yours Danny? ; )


“JOHN SMITH (38) enters the bar.”

Less is definitely more, but is (38) in danger of reading like an absolute? Does John Smith have to be 38 for the story to work?

Still, I guess it's less awkward than "JOHN SMITH, late 30s, enters the bar", and pithier than "JOHN SMITH (late 30s) enters the bar."

I suspect it's a personal taste thing. "JOHN SMITH (38)" puts me in mind of tabloid newspaper prose style, to which I have an aversion.

Rambling now. Must. Stop. Typing.

Lianne said...

There's a great description in Thelma and Louise, of Thelma's husband Darryl - "polyester was made for this man". Sums him up perfectly in my view.

Danny Stack said...


Me no likey but I was told it was important to clarify...

writergurl said...

How about:


MAJOR GENERAL ARTHUR DYSART, 47, distinguished looking, the ultimate warrior, he reeks of power and arrogance."

Good, bad, ugly?

Danny Stack said...

Good. Efficient but not entirely visual. Someone's conception of 'distinguished looking' might vary from yours. You might want something like "granite eyes peer above chiselled cheekbones; this man reeks of power and arrogance". That's not perfect either but something like that. Punchy language rather than plain.

writergurl said...

Glad you thought it was good. Boy, is it a fine line to walk...

Anonymous said...

good post, I just spent 10 days trapped in the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car on a road trip through Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, hashing out new characters

Anonymous said...

What do you think of referring to famous actors in your character descriptions.

In amongst the crowds and the blasting aggressive heavy metal we find ADAM. A skinny white guy. Think Adam Brody from The OC or a twenty five year old Matthew Broderick.

Is this sort of description ever used in Hollywood?

Danny Stack said...

It's not uncommon but it's a sneaky gimmick as it's basically stating who your ideal casting would be, which may or may not be relevant or suitable to the film, or the reader's grasp of the story. Still, it's not too much of a distraction, and generally okay.

Stuff like "he's like Marlon Brando when he was 18" is more acceptable because you're not suggesting Marlon Brando plays the part, you're trying to evoke an image of what the character looks like...