The writer Bruce Vilanch once said something in one of my classes that resonated. When you describe your lead character, imagine someone of star magnitude, A-list, reading it. The description is the first exposure to their character. You don’t get a second chance to make a good impression. Protagonist/antagonist descriptions should be nailed down. How do you do that? Find the visible essence of the character. That means you may have to cheat it when it comes to the ol’ “unfilmable” rules. Telling me they’re 35, average height, wearing jeans is telling me you put zero effort into the critical first look we have at the character. And that tells me you don’t want to sell the script.
Here’s a post that speaks to this, from the excellent www.johnaugust.com, one of the best blogs on screenwriting.
Let’s look at a few pro examples of how major characters were introduced, starting with this concise one from Assassins:
17 INT. INTERNATIONAL TERMINAL – DAY 17
Tired travelers trudge, clogs the concourse. But one
man moves briskly. Singular of purpose. Dressed
stylishly, we don’t quite see his face. He’s BAIN, a
presence, and for whatever reason, no one ever seems to
be in his way.
The Wachowskis do quite a bit with only two lines here. Singular of purpose, a presence, no one gets in his way. We can see this is a guy not to be fucked with.
Here’s a classic from Bad Santa:
A wiry, hard-bitten, sun-baked saddlebag of a man, GIN SLAGEL
sits behind his cluttered desk sucking on a filterless Pall
Mall. We can hear his in-taken breath rattling over and around
the phlegm, growths, and polyps that line his embattled
trachea. His words come out on an exhaled cloud chamber’s
worth of smoke:
Nailed! Get over the unfilmable stuff, cheat in critical moments, like when your protagonist is introduced. Not to mention actors LOVE this sort of detail. There are no CG effects involved, we’re not gonna actually show phlegm and growths and polyps, but this dude is played out, and we can see it in our minds here.
Another method of visual essence, visually defining your characters, is describing the world they inhabit. Here’s a great example from Bull Durham:
A WALL COVERED WITH BASEBALL PICTURES behind a small table
covered with objects and lit candles. A baseball, an old
baseball card, a broken bat, a rosin bag, a jar of pine tar–
also a peacock feather, a silk shawl, a picture of Isadora
Duncan. Clearly, the arrangement is–
A SHRINE — And it glows with the candles like some religious
We hear a woman’s voice in a North Carolina accent.
I believe in the Church of
Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions
and most of the minor ones–I’ve
worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma,
Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms,
and Isadora Duncan…
PAN AWAY FROM THE SHRINE across the room. Late afternoon
light spills into the room, across fine old furniture, to a
small dressing table. A WOMAN applies make up.
ANNIE SAVOY, mid 30’s, touches up her face. Very pretty,
knowing, outwardly confident. Words flow from her Southern
lips with ease, but her view of the world crosses Southern,
National and International borders. She’s cosmic.
Here’s another from Constantine. Notice there’s no age or talk of dress. We get down to the essence in three lines, the core of the guy:
INT. NARROW STAIRCASE HALL WALL
Lined with tenants trying to get a glimpse of the
The Stranger pushes through. Suspicious faces step out
of his path. The ones that don’t he pushes aside — even
The man has no patience for politeness, no time for tact,
no fear of anything.
This man is JOHN CONSTANTINE.
And, just to mess with your minds, here’s a last one where the clothes absolutely define the character. Good Reader, I wish I had one single way for you to accomplish this task. I do know rubbing up against the kind of great writing can only help, so here’s a description from The Hustler, Minnesota Fats walking into Ames Pool Hall:
Eight sharp. A departing customer holds the door for an incoming one:
Minnesota Fats. Heads turn when he makes his punctual appearance.
Fats’ clothes reflect his high station at Ames Pool Hall: a gray felt
bowler hat, and an expensive, tailored overcoat, with a carnation in
its lapel and two silk handkerchiefs peeking up from its breast pocket.
He moves like a sultan through the room, past Big John, whose eyes dip
significantly, and over to the coat rack, where Henry respectfully
takes his coat and hat. The buzzard-like eyes of the cashier direct his
gaze toward Eddie’s table. Fats withdraws a cigarette from his gold
case, then casually strolls toward Eddie’s table standing apart and
quietly observing the sharp, precise movements of his prospective
opponent. Even though Ames is filled with players, there is little
noise other than the clicking of pool balls.