Introducing characters in the best way possible is one of the most, deceptively simple, but simultaneously challenging aspects of screenwriting.
The struggle lies in economy and internal vs. external descriptions.
A few years ago, producer Ross Putman started a Twitter account that drew attention to the lack of variety in how women are described on the page. The mission of the account pointed out the sexism in screenwriting, the first stage of the creative process, that starts a domino-style chain reaction that can influence how women are seen on-screen. Here are a few examples of the female character descriptions from scripts he’s read:
JANE, 30s, is cute, but could be hot if she made an effort.
— Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) May 6, 2018
Enter JANE, early to mid 30’s, dressed in a form fitting power suit. She has the body of a teenager and the face of a star.
— Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 1, 2018
They watch JANE shower on 5 large screens. It's sexist, unfair and just plain wrong. But, it's also glorious as we look at multiple angles.
— Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 28, 2017
This stirred debate surrounding how women are described on the page, but there’s a larger conversation to be had as well about describing characters by their internal actions versus how they visually look, and which is preferred. One popular cliché is:
“She’s pretty but she doesn’t know it.”
Ignoring whether or not this is a “good” description for a moment (it’s not), the line does one thing right. It gives the reader both an external description, and a little information about her overall vibe. It also does both of these things very quickly, so you’re not halting the story to introduce a character and take up precious page space.
The above description has been used in produced scripts though! See a variation, that’s slightly longer, in 10 Things I Hate About You ( by Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith):
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.
This description actually turns the cliché on its head. Kat is pretty “but trying hard not to be.” The writers took over-used lingo and slightly change it to note that Kat is actively self-aware, instead of the oblivious attitude in the cliché. The description of her clothes doesn’t fit what we see in Julia Stiles’s performance on-screen but the written version emphasizes that Kat is “anti-popularity” without going for a “shrill” description that you could argue the director leans more towards in the final film.
While some screenwriters believe you should stick to the visual description, and others focus on evoking a vibe, screenwriter John August argues a down-the-middle approach. Back in 2007, he wrote in his blog:
“Since the screenwriter has mere words, it’s generally okay to throw an unfilmable sentence or two at a particularly important moment. And there’s no more important moment in the script than the introduction of a key character. The best character introductions tend to include both a sense of what you see (the character’s physical appearance) and an intriguing tidbit about their personality and/or situation.”
But not all writers need even this much room to achieve a well-introduced character. One of the biggest, rookie mistakes in screenwriting is introducing every character as if it’s a painful chat in a dating app, with two people saying their names and asking exposition questions. A visual medium needs a visual entrance that packs a punch.
For example, in Bridesmaids written by Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig, the character of Annie (played by Wiig) isn’t described beyond her age.
INT. BEDROOM – CONTINUOUS
ANNIE WALKER, mid-30s, is having sweaty sex with TED, handsome, 40. In a series of close-ups and jump cuts, we see Annie in the middle of a very long, vigorous session.
The secondary male character, Ted (played by Jon Hamm), is technically described more than Annie is. This is likely partially because the writer of the script was always likely to play the role, and people reading the script would know that. However, even if that weren’t the case, the moment establishes who she is in this script and she’s an empathetic “every woman”-type character. She easily could have been played by anyone in the age range (unless the director decided otherwise). The script uses the full initial sequence to establish who Annie is, and allow her actions to show the audience.
As the debate of women’s character descriptions continues, it has evolved to also raise issues of diversity on-screen. Some believe that you shouldn’t include race so that the casting director will fill roles “race-blind”. Including the race ensures that, unless a producer or the director say otherwise, the casting director will seek out actors that fit the description which creates opportunities for diversity.
Also, race does inform a character’s life experience and can have ripple effects on the story. This is partly why it’s so important to promote POC writers who can better depict an authentic life experience.
Regardless of the writer’s demographic, all writers should consider seeking out script readers of diverse backgrounds. The more reads you can ascertain from a variety of people, the more you can ensure that your script highlights characters that are complex, diverse, and introduced in an exciting way.
Seek out scripts that fit the tone and genre of your own script, to learn from who has come before. Ultimately, how much you describe a character should highlight your unique voice without halting the story. The best way to do this will always be to lean into an active moment that “shows not tells,” and feels like a part of the overall story.
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