How to Write Character Descriptions

Painting of man smoking pipe
Character Description:
In a typical screenplay, character descriptions should be written when the characters first appear on the page. These descriptions should be brief and to the point. This post looks at this often misunderstood aspect.

There are only two things to establish about a character from the outset–gender and age. Laborious, pedantic descriptions about specific physical attributes, cars and pets, musical instruments played, should be avoided. If a characteristic is crucial to the story, state this succinctly. If, for example, one of your characters, say, Ben Brandt’s graceful movement somehow ends up saving his life then foreshadow this in your description of him: Ben Brandt was built like an army barracks shithouse but moved with the grace of a ballerina.

Lengthy, unmotivated descriptions slow the forward thrust of the story and betray the writer’s inexperience.

So why do so many writers include them in their screenplays? Because it is far easier to describe a character’s varied physical attributes and traits than to reveal them adroitly through dialogue and action in a scene.

Reference to physical stature, hair colouring, and weight, therefore, are only relevant if they foreshadow aspects of the plot, such as the stutter that causes the murderer to trip up at the end, or the lack of height that motivates a man to over-achieve in other areas.

This extends to emotional traits as well. Indeed, one of the best ways to make emotional and physical traits germane to the story is to interweave them and have them explain some future aspect of the character’s action(s).

This brevity of description extends to the novel and short story too, for much the same reasons. In her wonderful book on the craft of the short story, Inside Stories for Readers and Writers, Trish Nicholson offers us several examples of this skill. In Modus Operandi she describes a character’s physical size: “A big man, too–he had to duck under doorways. His hands were as wide as dinner plates. To see those long fleshy fingers you’d realize the strength in them.” This description is not only germane to the story but it foreshadows menacing aspects of the plot.

Summary

Character descriptions should be brief and germane. Describe only those traits of a character that serve as triggers to the plot, and do so succinctly.

Understanding Positive and Negative Story Space

Positive and Negative Space:
In art, say in the painting of a portrait, positive space is the area occupied by the subject. The background, or surrounding material, represents negative space.

Stories and scenes can also be thought of possessing these two characteristics. The story itself, the action, events and dialogue can be seen as positive space. It is everything that is “viewed” on the screen, or read on the page. But the characters and the world they inhabit do not begin on page one and end on the last page. There is a sense in which they, and the world they inhabit, exist prior to the story commencing and that they continue to exist after the book or movie has ended, in the mind of the reader or viewer, at least. This aspect may be considered as constituting negative space.

In The Godfather II, Michael sits alone, isolated from family and friends, staring into emptiness, yet we feel that his life will continue past this point. In my forthcoming novel, The Level, a man wakes up in a pitch black space, bound to a chair, with no memory of who he is and how he got there. Clearly, the backstory here is germane to our understanding of his situation and to the plot in general—negative space. How far this negative space extends in either direction varies greatly. This aspect differentiates it from positive space, which concerns itself with the “finite” past and the “here and now”.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter suggests that another way to view this is as story versus plot, with story being the negative space which exists beyond the start and end, and plot which concerns itself only with actual occurrences on the screen or page—positive space.

Determining the boundaries between negative and positive space helps the writer find the true beginning and end of her story, as well as what to leave in or omit, right down to the level of a scene. This aspect of the craft is perhaps one of the most difficult to master but one of the most rewarding, once acquired.

Summary

Positive space concerns the actual words on the page, or shots in a movie. Negative space is the material that exists in an unstated but necessary form in the mind of the reader or viewer in support of the plot itself.