How do you write a great character description in your screenplay or novel?
Do you include detailed physical attributes and forays into backstory, thinking you’re building a solid foundation that will pay off later? That might be the norm in pulp films and novels, but discerning audiences and readers are impatient with lengthy descriptions that stop the narrative dead in its tracks.
Your characters have to make a strong impression from the get-go. The best way to achieve this is with brevity, precision, insight, and laser-sharp detail.
“Great character description highlights some inner aspect of the character; it does not solely rest on the way a character looks. At the very least, the description hints at a reality beyond the physical.”
Here are some examples of good character description from novels.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Hayes Barton Press, 2005, originally published 1885). Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left. (p. 38)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (1998). A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair. (p. 46)
Holes by Louis Sachar (2000). They were dripping with sweat, and their faces were so dirty that it took Stanley a moment to notice that one kid was white and the other black. (p. 17)
In all three examples above, the physical description, coupled with simile or metaphor, variously conveys an attitude, demeanour or theme beyond the description itself:
A head miraculously balancing the weight of a tub while moving in quick jerks under that very weight, suggests a skill indicative of classical Indian dance.
Eyes that glinting like black beetles under all the hair lends a sinister edge to the snapshot.
Faces that were so dirty that the race of the owners is not immediately apparent, connotes far more that the denotative description—it plugs into theme, suggesting that tags such as skin colour are superficial and trivial.
Great character description in screenplays
Here are three examples of character description in screenplays:
THE MATRIX (1999) NEO, a man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one. [This is a straight-from-the-hip description of the essence of Neo Anderson. It is a sharp and accurate snapshot of who the man is.]
AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997). In the hallway. Well past 50. Unliked, unloved, unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met. [A short, to-the-point summary of the protagonist. Far more powerful than a lengthy physical description about his shortcomings.]
GET OUT (2017) CHRIS WASHINGTON, 26, a handsome African-American man shuts the medicine cabinet. He’s shirtless and naturally athletic. He scrutinizes his reflection with a touch of vanity. [A clichéd, on-the-nose introduction to the character, with the exception of the last sentence, which exposes his narcissism.]
The point is to avoid superfluous physical traits and describe the way a character looks unless it is revealing of personality and plot.
When writing a character description stick to the essence of the character. Do not describe superfluous physical traits that are coincidental to the story.
As mentioned in various articles on this blog – one of the most important aspects of story telling is narrative perspective. It predetermines the tone of the story and also serves as a vehicle for the descriptions. Martin Scorsese once said that cinema is the result of what you choose to leave in the frame and what you choose to leave out.
American Beauty ( First person) ” Both my wife and daughter think that I am a loser . And they are right I have lost something.”
Good Fellas ( First person) “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”
Sea biscuit / The Princess bride ( Narrator POV – “The effect of October 29 was a myth that would grow over time. Before long Millions of Americans had a new definition of home.” )
Third Person ( Every major franchise blockbuster such as The Harry Potter Saga , The Lord of the Rings and The Hunger games)
In short : prior to telling the story you must first decide on a POV.
Thanks for the response, Gerhrad. Regardless of the POV character, however, we do need to nail every significant character’s description.
Hi Jaco. Thanks for the question.
Certainly, a description that hints at a psychological flaw or wound, while couching it in physical terms, makes for an intriguing introduction to character. So, something like: Bruce Dunn (42). Built like a pallet of lead ingots, with a calm, sonorous voice—except when speaking about his father, which happens only rarely, and then, hesitatingly, and with a stutter.
In your opinion is physical psychological traits more important to highlight when introducing the protagonist? I’ve been struggling o make my characters stand out more when they are first introduced.