Format: 5: Character Introductions & Descriptions | Script Gods

 
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Format: 5: Character Introductions & Descriptions
February 13th, 2010 by paul peditto

 

The first time a character is seen you should capitalize the name whether they speak or not. If they are important characters give them a description.

Characters do not get names unless they impact story. Limit the number of character names the reader must remember, at the top of movie especially. Only give names to characters that appear in multiple scenes.

Be descriptive with No-Name characters: Creepy Backrub Guy, Sumo Waiter, etc. One of my students recently gave me a memorable one: Potential Skank 1. One imagines the auditions…

The writer Bruce Vilanch once said something in one of my classes that resonated. When you describe your lead character, the star vehicle, you’ve got to imagine someone of star magnitude reading it, and reading the description of their character. Protagonist/antagonist descriptions should be worked. Describe the visible essence of the character.

Here’s a post that speaks to this, from the excellent www.johnaugust.com, one of the best blogs on screenwriting.

http://johnaugust.com/archives/2007/how-to-introduce-character

Vividly introducing characters will help take your writing to the next level. Anyone can describe a character as in their 30’s, wearing jeans. When reading scripts for my clients, I look for visible essence, as in this example 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:

GIN

“Fuck stick”?

Great adjective choices, specificity even on the cigarette he smokes. Totally visual. Let’s try one more, from Assassins:

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.

 

Short but sweet. Makes you wonder what his “purpose” is or why “no one ever seems to be in his way.” This is what you want from your own writing. Tease the reader; make them want to turn the page.

You can also introduce characters through their surroundings, as in Croupier:

INT. JACK’S BASEMENT FLAT – SITTING ROOM -  DAY

The untidy evidence. To the accompaniment of the music, a discordant version, three dog-eared copies of ‘The Invention Of The Wheel’, A Novel by JACK MANFRED. Worn furniture. A pile of literary magazines. Two elegantly arranged vases of flowers.  Women’s fashion magazines. Books everywhere, including ‘Scarne on Gambling’, ‘The Education of A Poker Player’, ‘Delta of Venus’ and other books by Anais Nin. A woman’s dress, back from the cleaners. A framed etching of Cape Town, South Africa, in the eighteenth century. Finally...Beneath the iron barred window, with a view of the iron steps down from the street, JACK sits at the dining table. In front of him is a word processor. He toys with a glass of vodka, smoking a Gitane, and leafing through a soccer fan magazine. He starts to touch-type, looking at the screen, not the keyboard. Words appear, letter by letter... THE BALL... A NOVEL... BY JACK MANFRED. He pauses to drink.

 

The art in character introductions is knowing when you have too much of a good thing. Look at this example from 15 Minutes:

 

INT. P.B. HERMAN’S RESTAURANT – DAY

 

 

 

The place is empty except for one table at the end of the bar.  EDDIE FLEMMING, Manhattan’s most famous detective, and his savvy, black partner, LEON JACKSON are having cocktails. Eddie is smoothly handsome, tough, smart and tired.  Not only is he the best homicide detective Manhattan has ever seen, he’s continually mentioned in New York columns and has been the subject of several magazine articles.  There’s even been a TV movie about one of his biggest cases.  Leon has been with Eddie a long time and was also featured in the TV movie.

Sitting with Eddie and Leon is ROBERT HAWKINS, host and star reporter for the tabloid show, “Top Story.”  Hawkins is also the best in the business and has dealt with them all: Joey Buttafuco and Amy Fisher, Lorena Bobbitt and OJ.

Wait staff bustles in the b.g. doing the morning set up. Hawkins listens as Eddie, cigar in hand, finishes a “war story” and a vodka tonic at the same time.

 

The camera can see “Eddie is smoothly handsome, tough, smart and tired.” The camera cannot see “continually mentioned in New York columns and has been subject of several magazine articles.” You’re telling me something the camera can’t see. How can I know, visually, that Hawkins “has dealt with them all…”? You can cheat, yes, but there is a fine balance between implied description and telling. For my money, this example goes too far.

One last point on this subject: Object Lesson 7: A pro gets away with murder. You won’t.

It’s frustrating to go to Drew’s Script-O-Rama and read scripts that break every rule in the book. So how far can you push it, yet keep within the bounds of “acceptable” formatting? Let’s look at a character description from Light Sleeper:

JOHN LETOUR, forty, light sleeper. Never meant to be a drug dealer, it just came along. He’s been other things: messenger boy, cab driver, model, postal clerk, doorman, nightclub shill -- never meant to be them either. Now he’s a D.D. Drug dealer.

JOHN LETOUR, well-groomed, khaki slacks, leather jacket, tippet-like scarf, belt pouch, “Beatle” boots, a shadow drifting in and out of other shadows, New York, day, night: watching, listening, rarely speaking -- nonexistent, seen only by those he sees. His face an affable blank. Make of it what you will. The eyes flicker; the hands shift discreetly. A map of calculation. Once he had a drug problem. Life turned a page. Today he follows instructions: he sleeps light -- one eye open, anticipating.

JOHN LETOUR, D.D., loner, voyeur, has been drifting toward an unknown destination. At mid-life the destination draws near. The circle tightens. The dealer is anxious. The destination is love.

 

 

The voice is Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), one of the great screenwriters. His character description is poetry. Contrary to the “just tell me who’s in the shot and what’s happening” advocates, I will say there is a place for poetry in screenplays. If you’re writing like this the chances are good you will eventually separate from the crowd. Yet, look at the above example: Half of it, at least, cannot be seen by the camera. One could argue that passages like “drifting toward an unknown destination…” and “The destination is love” don’t belong. Camera can’t see ‘em, so out they come, right?

Descriptions like this are the art of screenwriting. This is what will separate you—knowing when and how to break the rules, and having the writing chops to break them like nobody else.

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