Great character descriptions are a crucial part of any screenplay, and a meaningful way to get your leads to stick out.
How you introduce a character on the page will have a huge effect on how the reader experiences the script. It could be the difference between a sale or a pass.
Today we’re going to go over what makes some character introductions better than others, and how you can write the best descriptions for your screenplay.
What is a Character Description?
When you first meet a character in a screenplay, a brief description tells the reader how they should picture that person in their mind.
What are they wearing?
Where are they going?
How do they carry themselves?
And what’s happening in the scene?
Film and television are visual mediums, but they always start on a blank screenplay page. Writers have to imagine who these characters are, and then actors and directors help those people come to life.
There are funny descriptions, sad ones, and even action-packed, amazing descriptions. But the best versions of this get the point across, without being too elaborate.
So.... how do you do this well, without wasting a lot of time?
What Do You Need to Cover?
Screenwriting is all about "economy on the page". So when describing your character you need to give us an accurate mental image of the person, while also not taking us out of the story.
Most of the time, you’re meeting your characters in act one, but it’s great to master character introductions so you can set the scene in any act.
Also, most formatting books will tell you that the first time we meet a character, we should CAPITALIZE their entire name.
That’s a delicate balance, so let’s look at some great examples.
Character Description Examples
Our first one comes from The Big Lebowski.
INT. RALPH'S - NIGHT
It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is THE DUDE. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.
What’s great about this character introduction is the economy shown on the page. We get a wonderful scene setting of the grocery store and then go right to the core of The Dude. We learn just enough to understand his demeanor, and introducing him by the dairy counter sets up his love of white Russians.
There are a lot of ways to communicate who The Dude is. But choosing to note that his "casualness runs deep" conjures a clear mental picture rather eloquently.
And check out how this translated to the screen. These are all details that the various departments like costuming and props can utilize when they’re creating the world.
The Dude is a pretty chill guy, but what about character descriptions from someone a little more sinister?
Let’s learn how to write a character description by checking out Ted Tally’s screenplay for Silence Of The Lambs, which contains a nicely detailed take.
DR. LECTER'S CELL
is coming slowly INTO VIEW… Behind its barred front wall is a second barrier of stout nylon net… Sparse, bolted-down furniture, many soft cover books and papers. On the walls, extraordinarily detailed, skillful drawings, mostly European cityscapes, in charcoal or crayon.
DR. HANNIBAL LECTER is lounging on his bunk, in white pajamas, reading an Italian Vogue. He turns, considers her… A face so long out of the sun, it seems almost leached – except for the glittering eyes, and the wet red mouth. He rises smoothly, crossing to stand before her; the gracious host. His voice is cultured, soft.
This is a good character description, but it’s a bit long winded. Though it does a great job of setting a specific scene. Now, if you remember the movie, this was all changed. I can see Jonathan Demme wanting to show Lecter waiting for Clarice, and if you notice, a lot of these details are in the background.
Here's a funnier take. I love the entrance of Jack Sparrow.
EXT. PORT ROYAL – HARBOR – DAY
The skeletal remains of four pirates, still clad in buccaneer rags, hang from gallows erected on a rocky promontory. There is a fifth, unoccupied gallows, bearing a sign: PIRATES – YE BE WARNED.
The top of a billowing sail passes regally in front of them. On the landward face of the sail, apparently high in the rigging, is a man for whom the term 'swashbuckling rogue' was coined: Captain JACK SPARROW.
He gazes keen-eyed at the display as they pass. Raises a tankard in salute. Suddenly, something below catches his attention. He jumps from the rigging — — and that's when we see that his ship is not an imposing three-master, but just a small fishing dory with a single sail, plowing through the water — the Jolly Mon.
I love character descriptions that reveal new details about the character and begin on conflict. We learn right away that Jack has a sense of humor...and false grandeur. We see him react to the bodies of dead pirates. Not with fear, but a salute, so we know he is probably a pirate and respects other pirates.
Now that we’ve seen a few male characters described when the first show up, let’s jump into some female examples and see how we can all be better and describing female characters.
Female Character Description Examples
A hot-button issue inside Hollywood right now is how women are described on the page in screenplays. We’ve all read the words “broken but beautiful” and cringed.
There’s even a Twitter handle dedicated to exposing the worst versions of this.
When you’re writing, you want actors and actresses to WANT to be in your movie. And if the right ones want to be in your movie, then your movie might get made.
So these really matter. This is their first chance to see who they’re playing.
So when you’re crafting a female role, you want a great description that doesn’t rely on lazy or outdated stand-ins.
Let’s go over a few female character examples.
First, let’s look at the way Sarah Connor is described in the first two Terminator movies. The first Terminator falls into the mediocre category- it’s all about looks, and you cringe when you read it.
SARAH CONNOR is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength even she doesn’t know exists.
In Terminator, even though Sarah Connor is supposed to be a vulnerable target, the script goes out of its way to make it all about looks.
But James Cameron got it together for the next one.
Let’s examine at the way James Cameron describes Sarah Connor in the greatest sequel of all time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
SARAH CONNOR is not the same woman we remember from last time. Her eyes peer out through a wild tangle of hair like those of a cornered animal. Defiant and intense, but skittering around looking for escape at the same time. Fight or flight. Down one cheek is a long scar, from just below the eye to her upper lip. Her VOICE is a low and chilling monotone.
I love this one. It gives you the mood and tone of the movie. It’s harder, scarier, and so is Sarah. We immediately get to know the transformation and get to see someone with their back against the wall.
The scar tells us she’s seen some serious stuff since the first movie. It’s an immediate backstory and gets us interested.
So far, we’ve only looked at descriptions written by men. Let’s see how some female screenwriters describe their female characters.
First up, Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith take on 10 Things I Hate About You. Look at the way they tell us about Kat Stratford.
KAT STRATFORD, eighteen, pretty -- but trying hard not to be -- in a baggy granny dress and glasses, balances a cup of coffee and a backpack as she climbs out of her battered, baby blue '75 Dodge Dart.
Okay, I feel like the trolls are going to come out here and say that Kat is pretty and that I just said not to do that. But let’s really look at the story here. What we need to know about Kat is that she’s in control of her own body and looks. She’s not defined by what we think of her, she’s defined by what she thinks of herself.
Look at the other details we got. Not only does she not think about her own looks, she doesn’t care about her old beater car.
One of my favorite romantic comedy movies is It’s Complicated. I like reading Nancy Meyers scripts because you can see her imagination on the page, and see how she depicts it on the screen.
So let’s see how Nancy Meyers describes the lead character in this movie.
JANE is mid-fifties and has embraced that fact. She knows 50 is not the new 40 and because of that, she is still described by all who know her as beautiful. Everything about this woman's appearance screams "solid."
Here’s what we know about Jane: she’s got a hold on life. We know she still looks good, but it’s because she’s embraced who she is as a person.
What I love about this description is that the theme of the movie is how Jane goes from solid to spinning out of control and finds her real-life amidst the chaos. So it’s a great way for us to get to know her as the movie starts to kick into high gear.
What are some of your favorite great descriptions?
Leave them in the comments and we can all discuss them!
We know the Acquisition Executives look at your character descriptions when they’re reading, so they matter.
Stuck on actually getting your story started? Check out our Story Map to get your treatment or outline in gear.
Already past the descriptions?
We also have some advice on how to write great dialogue.