Magic Bullet: Characters, Concepts, and How to Look Like a Pro

Many times, how we name, describe, or write about our characters can mean the difference between looking like a pro, and looking like an amateur. We need to consider how our characters' stories are told, and whether they need to be told in film form at all.
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I was working on a project the other day -- a pilot -- and reading over an outline that was using shorthand names like DOE-EYED BEAUTY and THRILL JUNKIEwhen I realized I haven't talked at all on this blog about the importance of character names, character descriptions, and how vital it is to take what I like to call "the 30,000 foot view" of a project before writing page 1 of it. Fasten your seatbelts ladies and gents, this rocket's about to take off.

Character Names

For many writers, character names are the last thing they think about. It's an afterthought to plot, concept, dialogue bits, That Really Awesome Twist At The End, etc. I don't blame you -- all those other things are a lot more fun to think about and write about. But crafting a character name is actually just as important as crafting an attention-grabbing title (more on that later).

Here' are three tips about character naming:

1. It's an unwritten rule to make sure none of your characters' names sound alike, or start with the same letters/sounds. You don't want a Kara and a Sara in the same script, nor do you want a Karen or a Catherine in a script with a Kara. You don't want a Darcey in a script with a Marcey, or a Mary and a Marcey, or a Mary and a Mike, etc. There are a TON of exceptions to this rule (the show Mike & Molly, for instance), but for aspiring writers, it's best to be aware of how your character names SOUND, and LOOK on the page. The reason being that many readers skim, and you want to make sure that even a skimmer gets who is talking at all times. It's basically to lower the probability of confusion, but the other reason is ...

waldo abducts carmen

The Last Known Photograph of Carmen Sandiego

2. Make your character names interesting and distinguishable from all the other characters we already know and love. Now, I'm not saying you need to give all your characters names like Carmen Sandiego or Sanjaya or Action Jackson or Sir Reginald Pufnstuf the Third, but you do need to give them names that spark a memory of some sort. For instance, why do you think on cop shows or hospital shows they all refer to each other by last name? Well, obviously they are first going for "authenticity," but also it makes it SO much easier to give them distinguishable names -- from each other and other characters that have come before. To show you that you don't need to name all your characters with crazy first or last names, here's a good example: MEREDITH GREY on Grey's Anatomy. Now, you might be thinking "but, uh, Mike ... that's kind of plain, dude." Well ... as many of you know, the name of the show actually has a lot to do with one of the seminal books in medicine, Gray's Anatomy. Shonda Rhimes took that knowledge, gave her protagonist the last name GREY, and viola -- she had a clever little title and name for her protagonist. Sometimes, it's not about having a name be crazy that distinguishes it -- it's how the name connects with something bigger than itself in the minds of the audience, and making that fit with your own show or movie. Which leads me to ...

3. Maybe most importantly, have your characters' names SAY something about the character. I'll give you an example from the pilot I was reading -- the Doe-Eyed Beauty, the one who is naive? Her name is EVE. The Thrill Junkie who's a tomboy is Samantha, but goes by SAM (a name that could be for a boy), and the tough old woman with sharp edges goes by her last name, CUTTER. These aren't perfect names in any way, shape, or form -- but they illustrate that each character's name says something about her. If CUTTER's name had been CALLIOPE, for instance, sure it would have been distinct, but it wouldn't have matched or said anything about her actual personality. Now, there is an argument to be made for naming against type -- like naming a huge mofo TINY, for instance -- but personally I find that played out. That one's just a personal preference.

Character Descriptions

Don't even get me started on Character Descriptions. After reading tens of thousands of scripts, I've seen it all, and most of it's bad. Let me show you three examples, and you tell me which is the best of the bunch:

1. LUKE CAFFERTY (17) wears a tight-fitting polo shirt and loose dark blue jeans. He's got a smile that will blow you away.

2. LUKE CAFFERTY (17) is scrappy, with a short fuse but a big heart, and it's obvious his polo and jeans are hand-me-downs.

3. LUKE CAFFERTY (17) is a smooth ladies' man with a temper, a heart-melting smile and a fire in his eyes. His clothes are all hand-me-downs but his body makes it work. You never know what's lurking beneath those baby blues, but man ... all the ladies like to find out.

FNL

Couldn't resist the shout out to the once great Friday Night Lights

Which one of those 3 do you think is the best? Now, mind you, none of them is perfect -- but which one would you pick out of a lineup?

If you guessed number 1, we definitely need to have a talk.

If you guess number 3, we need to have a little talk.

If you guessed number 2, congratulations! You win a slow clap.

Like I said, none of those was perfect, but let's examine them one by one:

1. One of the biggest problems I see with character descriptions is the focus on what the character is wearing, and not on WHO THEY ACTUALLY ARE. While knowing what they are wearing could be a key element, focusing on that is a waste of space. We need to know ABOUT the character, not what they wear.

Think of character description this way: what can you say about a character, in one sentence, that would let both actors and directors immediately "get" how that character acts and reacts from scene to scene. You have one (maybe two) sentence(s) to capture a character's essence so that every time we read a line of dialogue, we can guess how that character might say it, why he might say it, and what might be the subtext beneath what he's saying. A tall order, for sure -- but it's one more aspect that separates the pros from the amateurs.

If you've ever seen Justified on FX, you know what a stoic individual the protagonist is -- and yet it's a new kind of modern stoic that is very different than the westerns of yore. It might be put this way:

justified

The modern face of a stoic cowboy

RAYLIN GIVENS (30s) is the kind of stoic who wears his heart in his holster -- and he's a quick draw.

It's a mediocre and slightly over poetic/over subtext-y description, but it gets the point across quickly (he's stoic most of the time, but can have flashes of anger/other emotions), and hints at his unnatural ability to draw and fire his gun lightning fast. If you've seen the show, I could have easily described him like this:

RAYLIN GIVENS (30s) is the last U.S. Marshal left to wear a cowboy hat and carry himself like Billy the Kid, but he pulls it off nicely.

But that would have committed the sin of focusing too much on how he looks/what he's wearing (though the "carrying himself like Billy the Kid" could have been useful).

2. So why is the second description the best of the original bunch of three? First, it's short, sweet, and to the point. It only tells us what we need to know, and moves on. No dilly dallying, extraneous words or phrases, and it's enough for a reader to understand who the character is and how he might react to certain situations. If you break it down, what can you infer from just that one sentence?

A. He's probably poor.

B. He's probably had to fight for survival in some way, whether in the home or in the neighborhood or on the streets.

C. There's something in his home life that's big that has affected him and shaped him -- either he's not gotten much love from his life at home, or he has, but it's been from unconventional sources (like a single parent, or a sibling).

These are the kinds of things an actor or director might read into "short fuse/big heart," and in the pilot I read with that exact description, the character had a hard life on the streets, but was loved and supported by her family. That constant struggle shaped her, and made her scrappy. When faced with various events in the pilot, we could guess how she might react based on the initial description. THAT'S a good character description.

3. So what was wrong with the last one? It did give us some good starting points for figuring out who this character is, right? Well, yes, but what else did it do? First, it took way too damn long. It's a little flashy/Shane Black-y in how it talks to the audience (which can be fine, as long as your script only has a couple spots in it with that type of writing), and in my mind, it's a little redundant. It's got some good stuff in it, no doubt, but bear in mind length and redundancy.

So, that's it. You want to make sure your character descriptions POP as much as your snappy dialogue and crisp, short, sweet, action lines. You want to make sure it tells us what we need to know ABOUT the character that we can guess how he or she will react to the events that unfold, and you want anyone who reads it to go "oh, this is a good character" from the start.

Okay, so let's look at something completely different ...

The 30,000 Foot View

I'm going to write about this further in another column, but the one thing I wish more writers thought about BEFORE they put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard was: "Who's the audience?" I'm going to explore this further with writing TV pilots in a future column, but for now, let's talk about features.

Are you asking yourself this question when you're formulating ideas or inking out an outline? "Who's going to plop down 20 bucks to watch this?" If you don't have a definitive answer, or if your answer is a very limited market, like, say ... sweatshop workers in Thailand, then it's time to re-examine your idea. I'm not saying it's time to change it, just maybe re-examine it and change an element or two that would make it appealing to a mass audience (say, males 18-45).

simpsons

I have NO idea why this image comes up when you Google "sweatshop workers in Thailand."

Let me give you an example:

A movie about the trials and tribulations of a sweatshop worker in Thailand.

Who's going to watch that? Not a lot of people. What about this:

A movie about three Americans who rescue a sweatshop worker from his factory in Thailand.

Okay ... now we're getting somewhere. Now you've added a point of view that more audiences can understand (American), but ... it still sounds a little ... too depressing. In fact, it sounds like an interesting plot to a novel, which has page count and ability to take its time, and can explore a number of themes to their fullest extent. Which brings me to:

Are you asking yourself: "Does this need to be a movie? Is that the best medium for this story?" I can't tell you how many great stories are crammed into the small box that is a movie script that would have been better served as novels, or some other form of storytelling, and not in a screenplay. Many times, these scripts are about inner demons, or inner conflict, or a protagonist that is his own antagonist (with no other outside force or person that is a real "antagonist"), or a protagonist that never DOES anything, just thinks about it ... etc. If you're best, juiciest, coolest, most interesting bits are internal, and not external, this question is especially important to ask yourself.

Let's try one more version:

When three Americans encounter a sweatshop worker during their blow-out bachelor party in Bangkok, they take him out on the craziest night of his life.

It's The Hangover 2 if you replace "sweatshop worker" with "monk." Kind of. Either way, you get the point. We started at A, and got to "high-concept comedy."

So make sure you're always looking at any new ideas that pop into your mind through the eyes of a studio executive. Ask yourself "who's the audience? Who will pay 20 bucks to watch this? Does this need to be a MOVIE?" and you'll be ahead of the game.

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at michael@scriptawish.com. I'm always happy to help.

Here's your Inspiration for a Four Quadrant, High Concept movie

Quick Note: I will be teaching a couple classes at this year's Screenwriting Expo, one of which will include offering one-on-one mentoring on-site for writers looking to develop and focus their script ideas. Shoot me an e-mail at michael@scriptawish.com if you're going to be at the Expo and are interested in reserving your own 20 minute block of time.

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