Your job as a storyteller is to create IMAGES. This is true not just for screenwriters, but for anyone presenting a story to a reader or an audience.
Whenever we read a novel or hear a speech or see a story as part of a marketing email, we immediately picture what is happening. It is your responsibility to make your characters, your settings and the action of your stories come to life clearly and vividly.
The most common weakness of character descriptions I read or hear is that they generalize. The details are broad, vague or not visual at all. They neither create a specific image, nor do they reveal anything important or emotionally involving about the character.
When you define your character only by their function – a boss, a mother, a teenager, a customer – that person is hard to picture and hard to care about. The same holds true when the description is a summary – giving us a character’s personality or conflict or need with no visible evidence, and nothing to allow your reader or audience to draw their own conclusions. It may be true that your character is “the hero’s sister-in-law” or “mean and vindictive” or “a loser” or “my son” or “from Macon, Georgia”, but none of those statements will draw us to the character, or your story. (And if you’re a screenwriter, you must omit such descriptions altogether – you can only write what the audience will see and hear on the screen.)
Sometimes storytellers provide visible descriptions that create an image, but the details are unimportant to the story and reveal nothing of what’s inside the character. I’ve read countless screenplays which introduce characters in this way: “JOHN, 29, tall and thin,” or “MARY (mid 40’s) an attractive brunette.” As you read those two descriptions, did you get any kind of clear image of John or Mary? Neither will your reader or your audience.
Choose Details Carefully
Your goal must be to reveal two or three clear, succinct and vivid details that create a picture in the minds of your reader or audience, and that convey something of the essence of that character.
Your focus should be on three things:
- What a person wears reveals far more about her than her height, build and age. Imagine reading about a woman whose Salvation Army dress was crisply ironed, and whose perfectly polished shoes hid the holes in their soles. Not only would you be able to picture the character, you would immediately know that she was desperate to hide the fact that she had fallen on hard times.
- Telling us a first person story about how you once “got angry” will make your speech vague and uninvolving. Instead describe how, as you waited endlessly in line for your prescription at CVS, your jaw bulged as your teeth began to clench and your face grew increasingly red. Now your audience will imagine they’re in line with you.
- How would your character enter a room full of people? Burst through the door followed by his entourage? Stick his head in and scan the crowd before quietly sliding behind a potted plant? Stagger in, shirt untucked, before colliding with a waiter? Each of these is more visual, and more revealing, than the word “enter.”
Consider the following example:
A seven-year-old girl sits watching [a beauty pageant] intently. She is big for her age and slightly plump. She has frizzy hair and wears black-rimmed glasses. She studies the show very earnestly. Then, using a remote, she freezes the image. Absently, she holds up one hand and mimics the waving style of Miss America. She rewinds the tape and starts all over again.
Even if you haven’t seen LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (and if you haven’t, why not?! It’s a terrific movie!), I’m guessing that screenwriter Michael Arndt’s description of Olive gave you a very vivid image of the character. And notice how her black-rimmed glasses, intent expression and mimicking wave tell us volumes about her beyond just her appearance. We know what she longs for, how determined she is, and how out of reach her dream seems to be for her.
Reveal just two or three carefully chosen details when introducing a character. That character will come alive for your readers and audiences, and they’ll be emotionally hooked into your story.
What’s a defining feature of your character’s appearance, and what does it say about who they are? Let us know in the comments.
For more help mapping out your character’s physical attributes and deciding where the focus of your descriptions should go, check out the Physical Description Template at One Stop for Writers
Michael has been one of Hollywood’s top script consultants, story experts, and speakers for more than 30 years, and is the author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and Writing Screenplays That Sell.