Writers of all kinds paint a mental visual of a story’s world and characters in a reader’s mind. With the turn of each page, more peppered details stimulate the reader’s imagination.
In screenwriting, no description is more critical than that of a character. Not only are we tasked with seducing a reader to follow our protagonist and root for them, but we also need to draw a potential actor in, enticing them to call their agents the minute they put the script down, or even before, screaming, “Get me that part!”
Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, character descriptions didn’t carry as much weight because actors were under contract with studios for a certain number of pictures. But, in today’s business model, actors have incredible power. Attaching an A-list actor is the difference between going straight to development and having your screenplay rot on your hard drive, never to see the silver screen.
In Hollywood, the A-list actor holds the power of royalty. Introduce a character as if presenting them to Queen Elizabeth. You are the person whispering into the Queen’s ear on a receiving line, telling her who approaches to greet her and why she should care. You need to introduce your character like a true movie star.
We’ve all seen basic descriptors:
JOHN DOE (40s), tall and lean, confidently sits at the defendant’s table.
What does that tell us? John Doe is a skinny, confident tall man. I don’t think that’s enough information for the Queen to start a conversation or for any actor to ring their agent in the middle of the night for a chance at that role.
Most often, the A-list actor won’t ever lay eyes on your script unless it gets past their agent first. An agent scans the PDF and heads straight to the page where their client’s potential character enters the story. Does it convey an intriguing personality and role that screams multi-layered? Is this the kind of role to guarantee nomination for a major award?
Yep, all of that is decided pretty much by that one descriptor. You’re a writer. Write a good one. Hollywood’s interest in your story hinges on it.
Let’s take the above John Doe descriptor. What if, you wrote it like this instead?
The prosecutor’s eyes land on the stern, forbidding towering figure of the primary defendant, JOHN DOE... a man accustomed to seeing others wither in his glare.
I don’t know about you, but I am now intrigued as to who John Doe is, what he did to deserve being on trial, and how the prosecutor is going to defeat him.
Before you say, “Wait, you didn’t include an age!” Sometimes, it’s more important to establish the tone of the character than the age. The film director and casting director can often decide age, based on the story and the actor they think would serve it best—and sell more tickets. Not establishing a specific age enables them to throw a wider net to hire the best actor for the job, not just the actor with the “right” age.
With the recent demand for more strong female characters, writing their introductions has vastly changed. No longer are “beautiful” or “sexy” favored adjectives. Physical traits are less important than personality.
Take the added character of Emma Cullen in the remake of Magnificent Seven. The screenwriter, Nick Pizzolatto, expresses her beauty while also demonstrating her spitfire personality.
EMMA CULLEN tends to her modest garden. She's lovely but it would piss her off if you called her that to her face.
Screenwriter and Director James Cameron’s description of Sarah Connor in the original Terminator revealed her naiveté.
SARAH CONNOR is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength even she doesn’t know exists.
The words he chose to define her in Terminator 2: Judgment Day were in stark contrast.
SARAH CONNOR is not the same woman we remember from last time. Her eyes peer out through a wild tangle of hair like those of a cornered animal. Defiant and intense, but skittering around looking for escape at the same time. Fight or flight. Down one cheek is a long scar, from just below the eye to her upper lip. Her VOICE is a low and chilling monotone.
Hollywood yearns for more racial diversity in films as well. Up until recently, if no race was declared, it was assumed the character was white. That’s changing. More then ever, stories casting people of all colors are hitting the box office. The hope of many remains that one day, we writers won’t have to specify a race because parts will be played by a variety of ethnicities, not just white. Hollywood will eventually catch up to their audience’s vision, but until then, do specify the ethnic traits, if it’s warranted by the story and character.
Normally, screenplays can only communicate what we can either see or hear on screen, but the industry allows for more flexibility with character introductions. When a Hollywood script reader gives you leeway, don’t squander the opportunity!
Who could forget the 1986 remake of Scarface? Al Pacino’s Tony Montana commanded the screen. Screenwriter Oliver Stone introduces him:
CLOSEUP OF TONY MONTANA, the scar-faced one, in the young angry prime of his life. We dwell first on the scar, which he likes to scratch now and then. We move to the eyes, pure in their fury. Finally we encompass the face -- the face of a man about to explode -- muscle, tissue, brain -- a man willing to live or die and on the increment of a moment, inflict or receive either one. He is clothed in rags crossed with holes, his shoes broken cardboard, his hair unkempt, his complexion sallow from prison.
Defining Tony as “willing to live or die” clearly demonstrates that nothing scares this man. Strap your belt on and get ready for the ride. That is how to attract an actor.
In the remake of Ocean’s 11, written by Ted Griffin and starring George Clooney, the opening scene of the film says everything you need to know about Danny Ocean, not in his description, but in dialogue. As Ocean calmly discusses his potential release with the parole board, we learn he is a master con artist and this arrest was the one time in a string of cons he ever got caught—because he was “self destructive” after his wife left him. As this smooth talker struts out of prison, a free man, we know he has a broken heart, trust issues, and is a career criminal who never intends on slipping up again. It’s almost as if he feels double-dog dared to commit the heist of the century. All of that information transmits in less than two pages. Brilliant.
Search your script for your protagonist’s first appearance. If you wrote them too vaguely, go back to the keyboard and have some fun with it! Show a glimpse at their internal wound and how they would react to their surroundings. Create a picture in the mind of the reader. Do their clothes express something about them? Are they gritting their teeth, slumped in a chair, or perfectly coifed? How do they enter the room—dash about, belly crawl, or with a slow saunter of confidence? What are the first words out of their mouths?
Speaking of confident cats, one of my favorite characters the Coen brothers created is The Dude in The Big Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges.
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 THE DUDE. 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.
Clearly he’s a mellow guy, shopping at a deserted supermarket late at night in sunglasses. Every detail says something about him. Even though he’s rumpled and relaxed, he takes great care in searching for cold, fresh milk—setting up the reveal of his White Russian addiction. More importantly, the reader can visualize that exact moment as if peeking down the market aisle to find The Dude himself, fondling milk cartons. I want to walk over and talk to him and pull his glasses off, wondering if he really is that chill.
When creating characters, crawl into their heads by laying them on an imaginary therapy couch. Explore the internal wounds that hold them back from achieving their outer goals right in their introduction to create a more powerful character arc.
In Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaron, written by Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (yes, a screenplay can have as many writers as a baseball team has players), the final line of Theo Faron’s description speaks volumes.
A man enters the coffee shop, making his way through the people: THEO FARON (55). Detached, unkempt, scruffy beard, glasses, Theo is a veteran of hopelessness. He gave up before the world did.
What destroyed his hope—love, war, or maybe a dysfunctional family? I don’t know, but the writers persuade me to find out. That’s their job. To make people feel and want to keep reading by following characters we care about.
Unlike novels, screenplays do not often mention clothing choices of characters, unless it’s critical to either the story or highlights that character’s mental state or everyday life.
In Crazy Stupid Love by Dan Fogelman, we meet a married couple in a fancy restaurant.
WHITE SNEAKERS sitting opposite FANCY HIGH HEELS. These feet aren’t nuzzling. There’s distance here. PULL UP, REVEALING CAL WEAVER (42) and his wife, TRACY (41). A handsome couple. He’d be JFK to her Jackie O... if he gave a shit. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.
While they’re married, they aren’t in love—at least not anymore. Cal’s choice of white sneakers in an upscale restaurant shows he doesn’t care about appearances, fashion, or societal norms. His wife obviously does. Perhaps she cares more about their marriage, too. Maybe he’s tired of working at it. The screenwriter drew us in by imparting this tiny peek into this couple’s life just by using body language and shoe choice.
Anyone who has watched Dog Day Afternoon by Frank Pierson will never forget Sonny and Sal. By far, this is one of my favorite films simply because of these multi-faceted characters. They are both protagonists and antagonists. We first meet them in Sonny’s car, “parked in a drab Brooklyn street.”
Beside the car stands SAL, medium height, also good-looking in an intense boyish way. His eyes dart about suspiciously, the ever-watchful Sal. There is a watchful reserve in Sal that contrasts to SONNY’s outgoing bounciness: first impression is Sonny is all bark; Sal is the bite. Sal is dressed in impressive blue suit style, he looks like a kid trying to impress the Godfather. He even wears a hat. Now, matching Sal's preparations inside the car, he checks his tie's alignment, shoots his cuffs and is ready...
Now, it’s your turn to stimulate the reader’s imagination and create a visual experience.
Use these action items to elevate your character introductions, not just the major players, but also your minor characters.
- Specify age and clothing only if it matters to personality or story.
- Provide a glimpse inside their mind or wound.
- Use action to convey personality or problems.
- Introduce them in a way that either steals the scene or makes a reader never forget that character.
- Give a glimpse of their everyday life.
Every produced film or TV show had characters written specifically to draw a reader in enough to champion that screenplay to their bosses. Start by asking, would you want to play that role?