Writing Appealing Character Descriptions

By CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE • May 02, 2022

Character descriptions are one of the most difficult things to perfect in your screenplay. “What?,” you gasp. Descriptions are more than a name, gender, age, occupation, and what a character is wearing. Their primary purposes is to generate images in a reader’s mind with economy and precision, especially when a character is first introduced. Not only should their description evoke rich imagery, it should also invite emotion – empathy, dislike, wretchedness, or love. It should also set the tone and genre of your screenplay.

Ideally, character descriptions should be restricted to no more than three lines:

There is no single way to craft the perfect character description. Writers should focus on the defining characteristics that get to the heart of the character. A description should separate them from the other characters and provide insight into their dramatic roles such as a villain or a buddy and their journey.

A minimal physical description is acceptable if it defines a character. For instance, a 23-year old teacher might conjure up a difference actor than a 63-year old teacher. One is newly-minted and one is a veteran close to retirement. If the age doesn’t aid the story, you may simply omit it or add a decade, such as a nursing home resident in her 70s.

Every word you write in your character description must count. If the teacher was wearing Christian Louboutin shoes, mention it. It’s an intriguing nugget of information that will intrigue your reader. We know they cost over a thousand dollars a pair – far beyond a typical teacher’s salary – and are high fashion shoes – hardly appropriate for the classroom. This evocative image should raise questions in the reader. Are they making a point about teachers’ salaries, staff dress codes, or trying to impress the students? Maybe he (or she) is a retired millionaire and simply wants to give back to the community by doing something they love?

There has to be a reason for a teacher wearing those classy tacones. Because they look nice isn’t a sufficient reason. The reason must also relate to the rest of the story. Perhaps they are going to a gala event in the evening and are getting comfortable in them? Maybe she’s a retired or failed model using them to remind her of better days. Alternatively, perhaps the “Loubies” represent an aspiration that she can wear expensive shoes at work?

If she’s a fashion teacher teaching high-end shoe design to her students, the shoes are probably more appropriate. You may not even need to mention the that specifically. The key here is context and how a reader will interpret it.

After a brief physical description, writers might add how the characters carry themselves. Going back to our teacher in Louboutins, how are they wearing them? Are they strutting around the classroom as if they wear them every day like sneakers, or are they stumbling around as they get used to them?

A character description should also reveal elements of their personality. These might be hidden aspects or not. How does this teacher parade across the classroom as she teaches? Her demeanor adds nuance and flair to the screenplay. A reader not only needs to know what is happening, but how it’s happening. The why comes later on.

Is the teacher confident or full of self-doubt? Does she like her job or treat is like a pay check? The Louboutins might reveal these aspects of her character without dialogue.

Descriptions should also give the reader a sense of a character’s flaws and goals. If our teacher wears a knitted cardigan with her heels, she’s either expressing her individuality or is unable to assemble an outfit. Yikes!  Screenwriters should consider how they want a reader to feel about such characters with their words. A teacher gliding across classroom floor like she owns the school is a different feeling than an awkward clunk.

Character descriptions should generally contain what can be seen on screen. It’s fine to add some spice to your descriptions, but keep them to a minimum. Let’s examine a version of how we’d describe our teacher:

 - JEAN O’CALLAHAN, 63, a community school teacher, newly-divorced and rapidly making up for lost time, sashays across the classroom in a dress that doesn’t leave much to the imagination and brand new watch that she’s probably still paying off.

This description says so much about who Jean is, but nothing about she feels about her job, or her students. And that’s fine because it suggests the focus of her character journey might be about getting over a divorce and getting back into the dating scene. Let’s break this description down further:

Jean may suggest an older person’s name like Audrey, Violet, or Ivy. Had her name been Rainbow, Experience, or Maya, she may have been born in the sixties. It says something about her background.

She’s a community school teacher which indicates a lower-paying position. Had she been an exclusive, private school teacher, the reader might think differently about her socio-economic status and the significance of her Louboutins.

Jean is newly-divorced and making up for lost time. An audience can’t see this on screen, but a reader can see this in their imagination. They immediately get a feel for the emotional state of Jean. She’s taking control of her life and making huge changes to move forward. She’s vulnerable, possibly anxious about what the future holds, but determined to emerge from a failed marriage as a stronger woman. Go sister! These $1695 boots are her North Star. She may be wearing them to prove she’s worthy of them rather than to impress others. She’s taken on a big financial burden, but they represent her future self. Whether these conclusions are borne out in the story isn’t so important right now. We’re setting her up for her journey.

We don’t yet know what “making up for lost time means,” but we sure will. This bait encourage the reader to stick with the script. What will Jean do? Will she be reckless or will she exercise restraint? She may become a shoe designer as a side hustle.

Notice the specificity of the boots. Jean knew exactly what she wanted and bought them. Had the description simply read Louboutins, the reader’s mind would have wondered to perhaps a default elegant, stylish, evening heel suitable for a gala.

Jean’s wearing an ostensibly inappropriate dress. She maybe asserting her sexuality or individuality, and possibly being too brash. She might be announcing that she has needs such as wanting to look attractive. This flaw adds a new dimension to her character. Nothing else in the description suggests that she’s unaware that too much skin is showing or that she cares.

Later action lines might address how the students react to her dress sense. They could be supportive offended, titillated, or tolerant. This can be conveyed through their facial expressions or dialogue.

Jean sashays across the classroom. This indicates a level of elegance, sophistication and self-confidence. The way she moves is a window into how she feels about herself. Had she dragged her feet or tip-toes, she may be shy. Or if she sat in her seat with her boots on her desk, she’s a rebel, a free thinker bucking the system.

The final piece of Jean’s description is potentially the most character-revealing. The fact that she’s paying them off, and likely will be for some time suggests that this wasn’t an impulse buy. She probably thought long and hard and decided the financial burden was worth the emotional boost. Again, the audience isn’t privy to this information yet.

Character descriptions should contain any unusual features of a character. If they walk with a cane, have tremors, a scar, squint due to bad eyesight or speak with an accent, mention them.

Add any quirks or habits in the description as well. Does your character bite their nails or constantly check their phone while you’re talking to them? How about speech patterns? They may talk like a drunken sailor or have some speech impediment like a lisp. If they’re deaf or blind, they will definitely have a unique view of the world. Perhaps they have a unique skills. A reader needs to know that the card counter at a poker match or thief that can remember every security code in the building has these skills early on.

Some writers add the reactions of the other characters to their descriptions. Going back to our teacher Jean O’Callahan, you might re-describe her dress. Something along the lines of “she wears a dress that makes her male students turn up on time,” provides a different context to her “dress which leaves little to the imagination.” Student reactions are an indication of her inter-personal relationships with them. Reactions can also set up conflict in the story.

Imagine if the dress still had a label on it. This image not only poses questions, but it raises possibilities for answers. Jean may not have seen the label. Jean may have stolen the dress, or bought it and planned to return it the following day.

Characters are introduced doing something; something interesting or mundane. Think about how Jean’s character description could be illustrated in another way. We could have her pointing to a chart of the periodic table of elements and being as bored as her students. We’ve seen this description countless times. Your reader won’t thank you. We could substitute the dress with a smart casual shirt and slacks. Still boring. Then we see those boots. Kind of interesting, but not interesting enough. Then we catch a glimpse of a concealed knife tucked in her right boot. That certainly piques interest in the reader.

The character introduction when we first meet them is critical to establish connection and comfort with the reader. As they progress through the story they might change to depict the character’s place in their journey. Jean may lose her Louboutins during the course of the story and show up for work with Kmart slip ons.

Words matter. Use them with purpose and intention.

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