How To Describe A Character In A Screenplay

April 20, 2021
1 min read

How do you describe a character in a screenplay? Do you need to inform the reader of every intrinsic detail about every character, or is a simple description enough?

Looking at the information in the example beneath, do we need all that information for the barman when we will most likely never see him again?

Screenshot of a script describing a barman character.

The information slows the script down, and if it slows the writing down, it’s going to slow the reader down and make your script feel lifeless. Elegant scriptwriting will have brief descriptions of scenes and characters.

He spends more time in the gym than spending it on himself to try and get out of this shit hole town.

How do we know that? Will there be superimposed text on the screen to tell us? If there is no visible way for us to receive this information through the camera, it doesn’t need to be in the script. But furthermore, why would we even need to see this information? Anything in the description must be visible on the screen. If the director cannot shoot it, or the actor cannot act it, it doesn’t belong in a screenplay.

Keep It Short and Simple

Let’s have a look at the introduction of Cobb from Christoper Nolan’s Inception;

“The waves toss a bearded man onto wet sand. He lies there.”

That is it. We aren’t even given his name. This is because the audience has yet to see or hear his name on the screen. If the audience doesn’t know the character’s name, the reader doesn’t need to know it.

Let’s skip ahead a few pages. Cobb’s name is now introduced as he has traded a good few lines, and we can assume he may be the protagonist: The speaker is Cobb, 35, handsome, tailored. A young Japanese man, Saito eats as he listens. 

We are given no more information about the character, but we as a reader do not need to know anymore because it cannot be photographed on set. Their names have now been introduced because they will be spoken aloud within the new few lines. The location has been scripted as an Elegant Dining Room. This sets the tone for what the characters would be wearing. The costume designer would use the location information and the context to dress the characters appropriately; there is no need to list descriptively what color the suit is and what material it is made from.

You don’t have to give a police sketch description of every character; if you can’t photograph it, do not write it.

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Lewis McGregor

Lewis McGregor is a filmmaker, photographer and online content creator from Wales.