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Friday, October 17, 2008

WRITING CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS

Pet Peeve #110: POOR CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS! I can’t tell you how many scripts have come across my desk that have character descriptions that read something like this:

MATT, a ruggedly handsome park ranger who loves his family and is tolerant of everyone but won’t back down from a fight, takes charge of situation just by walking in the room.

Gad zukes, people, it’s called “creative writing”, not just spewing a bunch of adjectives behind the character’s name. This is where the old adage, “show, don’t tell” comes into play. SHOW that Matt loves his family by having a picture of his family prominently displayed on his desk or – how’s this for crazy? – show him hug his kids and his wife when he gets home. Even having him talk to his family on the phone conveys it better then merely writing it down. There are a dozen ways you can show this so that a viewing audience gets it but unless you plan on handing out copies of your script at every screening no on is going to get it from that description.

SHOW Matt walking into a room and everyone automatically snapping to attention if that’s what the situation calls for. How he reacts to that – humbly, reluctantly, or maybe he accepts it as a given way of how things should be – is just as important as the fact that people turn to him for leadership.

Being tolerant of everyone could come through in giving him a sidekick who is African American or Muslim or a woman, whatever seems to go against the grain in the situation. Or he refuses to jump to conclusions about a bear – it doesn’t matter but SHOW it.

Any idea about your character that the audience needs to know – they’re smart, they’re afraid of snakes, they’re color blind – every detail needs to be demonstrated through action, not description. It’s called a viewing audience for a reason, people!

You don’t really need to waste the space describing your main character as “ruggedly handsome”. It’s a movie, it’s kind of a given that the hero is going to be hot. The only exception would be if his (or her) looks go against type. For instance, a scholarly looking park ranger or a wimpy guy would be unexpected and you can get away with just describing that. The director, producer and ten other people will take care of his looks. The only thing as a writer you should worry about is how the other characters react to this anti-type character. For instance, if he’s wimpy the other rangers might scoff at him, that sort of thing.

Showing the character through action rather than adjectives may take a few more lines but it’s page space well spent.

1 comment:

Benjamin Ray said...

Hi Marla,

Just read some scripts sold for big bucks.

You're right. The character desc. must be concise and visual.

The script Goodfellas had some of the most concise but powerful character description in the history of screenwriting.

Regards,
Benjamin Ray
brscreenwriter@gmail.com
www.hollywoodtoronto.com