Last month we talked about setting - the physical world in which our characters come to play. You’ll remember Bo Goldman’s list of things that go into the box (scene) that “jacks up the drama”: setting, weather, costuming, lighting, props, animals. Then we took a look at how some screenwriters set the stage in their scenes.
Did you do your homework? How did that work for you? Is this mic on?
This month we’re going to add just a bit to the box by discussing character description. Remember that we’re looking at screenwriting, and in many ways screenwriters don’t describe their characters in the same way novelists do. I think we can learn a bit from them, nonetheless.
In Story Sense, Paul Lucey informs his audience that characters should be introduced in a sentence or two so as not to limit the casting choices. Not really a problem for novelists. Lucey then goes on to give numerous examples of how characters are first introduced in screenplays. We’ll do the same here.
Before I do that, though, I want you to think about your current characters. If you had to describe them in a sentence or two, how would you do it? Take a moment and give it a try. Off the cuff, here’s mine: Chris Gabriel is 6'4" tall with short, dark hair, grey eyes. He’s classically handsome and smiles readily.
Okay, take a look at some of these descriptions and then we’ll try again.
MUNNY [Clint Eastwood] is thirty-five or forty years old, his hair is thinning and his mustache droops glumly over his stubbled jaw. If it were not for his eyes he would look like any pig farmer with his canvas overalls tucked in his boots pushing on a hog. Unforgiven.
DR. HANNIBAL LECTOR [Anthony Hopkins] 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 wet red mouth. He rises smoothly, crossing to stand before her: the gracious host. His voice is cultured, soft. The Silence of the Lambs.
SAM BALDWIN [Tom Hanks] is in his thirties. His neck is pinched into a crisp dress shirt and tie. His expression is vacant, faraway. A breeze blows but he doesn’t react to it. Sleepless in Seattle.
A translator's words ring in the earpiece of a handsome man [Harrison Ford] in his mid-forties. Worry lines crease his forehead and the touch of gray at his temples attest to three very difficult years in office. This man is JAMES MARSHALL, and he is the PRESIDENT of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Air Force One.
Riding along the road comes WILLIAM WALLACE [Mel Gibson]. Grown now, a man. He sits his horse as if born there, his back straight, his hands relaxed on the reins. He has a look of lean, rippled power. He looks dangerous. Braveheart.
MARION [MURRON] MacCLANNOUGH [Catherine McCormack], grown now into a stunning young woman; her long auburn hair reminds us of those years long ago; she wears it the same way, straight and full down her back. Her dress is plain, like the grass that surrounds a wildflower. She’s the most beautiful girl in the village, maybe in all of Scotland. Braveheart.
Wendell "BUD" WHITE [Russell Crowe], 30, stares at the enormous Christmas tree on the deco platform over Bullocks' entrance. An LAPD cop, Bud's rep as the toughest man on the force has been well earned. L.A. Confidential
Sgt. ED EXLEY [Guy Pierce], 30, bespectacled, is at the desk with a YOUNG OFFICER. Exley is an up-and-comer. Burning with ambition. The faster he rises through the ranks, the more resentment he leaves in his wake. L.A. Confidential
Her hair kerchiefed, LYNN BRACKEN [Kim Bassinger] waits as the Owner writes it up. There's glamour, a cat-girl grace about Lynn. She seems like she belongs up on the wall with the moviestars. L.A. Confidential
LAPD Sgt. "Trashcan" JACK VINCENNES [Kevin Spacey], late 30s with slick, good looks, dances with a young ACTRESS. Grinding their way through a ballad, they're obviously hitting it off. L.A. Confidential
I find it interesting how some of these characters are described so much more fully than others, even in the same screenplay. In L.A. Confidential, we don’t have a clue what Bud looks like, but we see Vincennes with “slick, good looks." Exley gets even more with characterization in his. As I read through screenplays, it’s interesting to see that sometimes the writer give you a nice description of the character and at other times allows the character to show himself through his actions straightaway. Here’s an example:
A MAN idly walking around the building. He is BUTCH CASSIDY [Paul Newman] and hard to pin down. Thirty-five and bright, he has brown hair, but most people, if asked to describe him, would remember him as blond. He speaks well and quickly, and has been all his life a leader of men, but if you asked him, he would be damned if he could tell you why. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
But when it comes to introducing Sundance [Robert Redford], he only calls him MUSTACHED MAN. As you read the scene (it’s wonderfully done in the movie) it’s almost as if the writer wanted the reader to have the same reaction as the characters playing cards with Sundance. MUSTACHED MAN has been very quietly cleaning up at the tables. There are accusations of his cheating thrown about. If MUSTACHED MAN says anything at all, it’s very quiet, one or two words here or there. He ignores the accusation and simply stacks his chips carefully into piles. Finally, there’s the drawing of guns and threatening of MUSTACHED MAN, who just sits slumped in his chair sadly, his head down. Then BUTCH shows up and starts talking (that’s what he’s good at,) and all MUSTACHED MAN has to say is “I wasn’t cheating.”
More words, more threats and a great shot of MUSTACHED MAN taking in his surroundings as he and BUTCH talk. Finally (ta-da) BUTCH says, “Can’t help you, Sundance,” and we have the shock, amazement and fear that comes when the rest of the characters - and the audience - find out who this MUSTACHED MAN is.
All this done, with nothing more from the author than MUSTACHED MAN by way of introduction. The author just let Butch introduce his friend. Even then, the author simply says, “THE SUNDANCE KID, for that is the name of the MUSTACHED MAN. He sits slumped a moment more, his head down. Then he slowly raises his head. His eyes dazzle. He looks dead into MACON’s eyes. Still staring, he stands. He, too, wears guns.”
Can you do that in a novel? If you’re creative, you can. But, I’d be willing to bet that our author knew intimately what the MUSTACHED MAN looked like. He also knew how both Butch and Sundance moved, how they talked (or didn’t talk much). As novelists, of course, we have to get all that on paper.
The key, again, as with setting is to use specific detail to describe characters. (If you want a complete course in making characters come alive - check out Margie Lawson’s Creating Character Emotions class)
In closing, let me give you a taste of where we all want to be when describing characters. Here, from Jonathon King’s The Blue Edge of Midnight are some one-liners used to describe Murphy, the newsstand owner:
“He was a huge lump of a man who sat for hours at a time on a four-legged stool with what seemed like half of his weight dripping over the sides of the small circular cushion.”
“He had a fat face that folded in on itself like a two-week-old Halloween pumpkin and you couldn’t tell the color of his small slit eyes.”
“He had a voice like gravel shuffling around in the bottom of a cardboard box.”
Okay, shall I try again on Chris? Chris was tall and lean, with dark, shortly cropped hair and silvery eyes that crinkled when he smiled. He had the look that guys got when charming old ladies. But on this man, it seemed to be second nature.
Homework assignment: Write in your books. Gasp, sob. Okay, I admit it, I write in my books. Not books I borrow, but books I own. I underline great writing, be it description or just fabulous wording. So, even if you don’t want to write in your books, you can still start “noting” great setting and character description. Feel free to even send it on to me for my files.
If there’s a better way to learn how to write great fiction than to read great fiction, I don’t know what it is.
Until next month, when we’ll discuss Visual Storytelling, keep your butts in the chair and your hands on the keyboard - BIC-HOK.
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.