Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Character introductions on the page

Over the past 24 hours I read three screenplays off the black list, and it made me realize something. I don't differentiate between characters that well. I'll see a character description and sometimes I kind of glaze over it, especially if the characters have really generic names. Then I'll forget who's who for the rest of the screenplay.

The times this doesn't happen are when someone uses a really distinctive description that gives us an element of a person's personality, or preferably when the description involves somebody doing something.

"JOB, 30, races through the day care, machete raised as he screams at the poor kid he's chasing" is memorable. I don't think I'll forget who Job is.

"JOB, 30, tall and skinny" is not memorable.

When you're reading written material you don't have the benefit of seeing an actor in the role. They're all blurs in my head until something makes them more than a blur.

This seems common sense, but I realize now that a few of my character intros aren't very interesting. My main characters are introduced doing stuff, but I should go back and make the rest stand out a little. It doesn't always take a lot of extra words. You can have a character turn red while he screams on the phone or picking a scab or twirling her hair into a tight band around her finger. All of these a character can do instead of just standing around waiting for the scene to begin.

I don't want anyone getting confused because they can't remember who's who.


  1. AGREED!! I love vivid character descriptions in the screenplay... it gives me a better idea and understanding of the story.

  2. This is a super dumb question, please indulge me. Where do you get screenplays to read? Can you buy them?

  3. You can buy the shooting version at most bookstores, but to get a spec you can go to Script-O-Rama or Simply Scripts. Most of my scripts I just get from other people.

    Carson posts links to scripts on his blog, Scriptshadow.

  4. I've started doing an "intro pass" in my rewrite process, in which I just go through the entire script and punch up the sketchy intros I tend to throw into the first draft.

    Patrick Sweeney
    I Blame Ninjas

  5. I like to think of character descriptions as writing a line that epitomizes the character instead of describes them. Instead of (a lazy example), LUCY, a tall lanky attractive brunette, it'd be something like, LUCY, head cheerleader all grown up into desperate housewife. That's really awful, but right now I'm actually watching Alias and my attention is divided.

    But to the heart of the matter -- I like character descriptions that will give a glimpse into how the character thinks and works, not just what they look like.


  6. I always say you want to describe the character of the character, because anything else is casting.

    Here's one of mine (which is like Amy's example):

    "CIA Chief HORACE LITTELL hits the pause button on the console in front of him. Steel eyes, steel hair, steel demeanor. He has laughed only three times in his adult life."

    My theory is you want a feel for who the character is, so that when you read their dialogue after the introduction you hear their voice. This guy's dialogue is all short sentences, to the point, no nuance... and he doesn't understand when others are joking.

    - Bill

  7. I always struggle with the kind of sentiment expressed in the comment above mine.

    Revealing something so critical to character like "has only laughed three times in adult life" always seems like cheating to me.

    Like the dialogue and behavior should get character across instead of using the intro as a kind of crutch.

    I like Emily's idea of making the character active in their own intro though. Pretty solid advice for everything the characters, but never thought to apply it to intros in that way before.


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