My students often struggle with character descriptions in screenwriting.
The reason we need a description is to give your reader an understanding of who the main characters are. Otherwise, they’ll start assuming everyone’s identities in your script and then be disappointed when you don’t conform to the image they’ve pictured.
However, this doesn’t mean you list a bunch of physical descriptions or traits. You only have a few lines to use, so you want to focus more on their essence.
Essence is best described as offering a glimpse into their unique personality:
- NELSON CONRAD, 68, waddles like a deflated beanbag chair.
- ELYSSE CAMBRIDGE, 34, a predator dressed in Giorgio Armani.
Or my favourite from The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier:
- MAX, 17, is a pirate in ripped jeans.
To figure out the essence, I will often ask questions about the character, trying to figure out their distinguishing trait—especially one relevant to the story.
Once we have that, we look for an image that reflects that detail. For example, a greedy character might steal from their mother, or a jealous character might be envious of their own shadow.
Another less academic way to approach the problem is to explain it like a “Yo momma joke”:
- Yo momma is so ugly... (How ugly is she?)
- Yo momma is so jealous... (How jealous is she?)
It’s tacky, but it gets the job done.
The other thing about character descriptions is they don’t need to be limited to screenplays. Understanding them is a quick solution when writing action-focused, plot-driven books. And they don’t need to apply to just characters, but settings and objects within that world.
So play with them, especially when introducing someone new into your story. We’ll always get to know the character better, but creating a snapshot that carries us into the story helps your audience understand and appreciate your storytelling skills more.
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