Character Description in Screenplays and Novels

Character description and the Mona Lisa
No character description would be complete in this example without reference to Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

Character Description: In a typical screenplay or novel, 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.

In a screenplay, there are only two things to establish about a character from the outset—gender and age. Pedantic descriptions about physical attributes, cars and pets, musical instruments played, should be avoided, although, in a novel, lengthier descriptions are more common.

If a characteristic is crucial to the story, state this succinctly. If, for example, one of your characters, say, Bruce Dunn’s graceful movement somehow ends up saving his life then foreshadow this in your description of him: Bruce Dunn was built like an army barracks shithouse but moved with the grace of a ballerina.

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

So, why do so many writers include them in their stores? 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.

Character description that references physical stature, hair colouring, and weight, therefore, is relevant only if it foreshadows 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 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 in the plot.

Summary

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

2 thoughts on “Character Description in Screenplays and Novels

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    It is a universal truth that the transition of a successful book into any other art form is filled with danger at every turn. Most fans of Harry Potter will tell you that the books are better then the films. OF COURSE THEY ARE ! Harry Potter was never written for the screen it’s a book. It takes a level of sophistication and talent to turn a three hundred page novel into ninety minute feature or two hour stage adaptation. Hollywood has been putting its eggs into one basket into best selling high concepts such as : the chronicles of Narnia , The Lord of the rings and the Golden compass. When these films bomb , they bomb hard for a good reason – These stories were never written for screen . It’s impossible to fit every single detail written on the page into the frame. What these die hard potter fans fail to understand is that stage and screen is very different from novels. When reading a book the power is with the reader. The reader follows the story at his own pace – Whether you are Charlie Brown reading the collegiate-level novel War and Peace over a weekend for book report due Monday or reading to relax – the story plays at your pace. The director of a film or stage production only has two hours to tell his story and that’s only when he reaches the goals of the studio that is pouring millions upon millions into the production not to mention the marketing. Chris Columbus needs to finish the Movie before Daniel Radcliffe hits puberty because he is the face of the franchise that the studio wants to run with.

    In short : The page (book business) and (Show business) screen/stage are two separate industries all together.

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