Experts Weigh In: 8 Tips for Writing Great Characters
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Portland for the Willamette Writers Conference. In addition to meeting countless writers, and re-connecting with some industry friends that I rarely have time to connect with, I also had the pleasure of hanging out with the one and only Scotty Myers, screenwriter, blogger, interviewer, and DePaul faculty member. Over dinner at a downtown Portland Gastro Pub with some of my favorite readers and experts around, Scott and I talked about the importance of character, and by extension the character journey, to a meaningful, powerful and resonant screenplay or TV pilot.
With that in mind, I turned to my consultant and reader friends in the professional space, and asked them:
What makes for a great character in a screenplay? And what makes for a great – or lacking – character description?
My friend Tawnya Bhattacharya, working television writer and owner of Script Anatomy, my favorite year-round TV writing program, was quick to weigh in and provide some practical tips:
“What makes for a great character in a screenplay? A well-developed, 3-dimensional character with a strong goal.”
As for writing a strong character description, Tawnya said: “A great character description nails who that character is in a phrase or a brief line or two. From that description, we should immediately be able to “get” who that person is, visualize them, and hear their voice in our head when they speak. There are many ways to accomplish this, and we teach over a dozen ways you can write dynamic character descriptions at Script Anatomy. Here’s one:
Consider including a touch of BACKSTORY: The skeptic is one OSCAR CASTRO VARGAS, 33, famous, laconic, masculine. Oscar’s been to war, punched a two-star general, smuggled orphans out of bad places. (EXPOSED written by Charles Randolph)
Start answering the question: WHAT DRIVES MY MAIN CHARACTER?
Meet MATT FLYNN (33) driven by demons he can neither resist or understand. Even
in a torn “UCI Football” tank-top, we sense his vanity (perhaps it’s the uber-fit frame or the perfect cut of his hair.) (CONTROVERSY by Sheldon Turner)
Jen Grisanti, who instructs for NBC’s Writers on the Verge, teaches a 10-week uber popular Storywise Teleseminar, and is also a sought-after consultant, shared:
“I believe what makes for a great character is a flawed and complex character where we can feel the central conflict that is fueling the pursuit. I want to understand the wound that drives the character and the flaw that gets in the way. The character should be active. We should know what they want. I love when I feel the strength and the vulnerability of a character.
I like character descriptions that tell me about the personality of the character through action versus words that just describe the appearance of the character.”
Popular consultant who is also a popular speaker at events and conferences, and worked as a Development Executive Danny Manus told me:
“What makes for a great character in a script is knowing WHY it has to be THAT character in THAT story. If there’s a deeper connection between your character and the situation they are brought into – some emotional/backstory/ironic/meaningful connection between the two, your character will feel more important and ingrained into the world of your story. Introducing them in a compelling way or intriguing way that puts us in their mindset and allows us to understand their essence or place in the world, will always help. What makes for a great character, is when they have an equally powerful, compelling, or entertaining external goal AND internal goal. And audiences caring about them achieving both.
Great character description is all about bringing out the essence of who that character is, what their place in this world is, and giving us something to connect to. It’s the first step in their arc because it’s where we meet them. Sure, it’s great to have some type of physical description or age range (20s, 30s, 40s, etc.) so that we can picture them in some way. But it’s more important to get across how they connect to the world or story you’re telling. And a little clever wordplay that makes it visceral is never a bad thing either. Poor character description is something like “Bobby, handsome and tall with blue eyes, gets dressed for his day” – BOOOORING! He’s not a Ken Doll and this doesn’t tell us anything. Specifics are what make us care.”
Hayley McKenzie, a former BBC development executive and currently a leading UK script consultant under her banner Script Angel said:
“A great character is one that feels truthful and that interests us. They don’t have to be likable but they do have to compel us to want to know what they’ll do next. Character description should be pithy and convey the essence of their personality. One of my favorites from a spec I read years ago was ‘Shaun, 35, you’d fancy him a 10 and trust him a 2.’ It gives a strong impression of who he is in just a few words. The worst character descriptions I read focus on what a character looks like instead of any sense of their personality. If your character walks in a room, what is the first impression most people would form of them? Arrogant? Shy? Intimidating? Nervous? That’s what the character description should convey, in as few words as possible.”
Talented writer, and seasoned industry reader Andrew Hilton, who is incidentally another one that I was in Portland with, told me about what it takes to write a great character in a screenplay:
“It’s simple really – we need to care about them and/or find them fascinating. You wouldn’t have coffee with a dull, boring character so why spend 90 minutes sitting with them in a theater? Obviously, the more original the character, the better. Take the recent BABY DRIVER. There’s nothing original about a getaway driver undertaking one last job so he can run away with the girl. However, the concept of an orphan with savant-like driving skills, who constantly listens to music to drown out his tinnitus, makes the entire movie.”
As far as writing powerful character descriptions, Andrew added:
“Find the most efficient way to paint the most vivid portrait. Never spend 4-5 lines describing a character in banal, painstaking detail. Consider using a simile, e.g. “A face like an old potato.” Above all else, try to immediately capture the attention of the reader. Pique our interest so we’re instantly drawn to this character or can easily envision them.”
My other favorite industry reader, Rob Ripley, who continues to find success in his own writing and provides coverage through his website, The Third Act, said this:
“The best characters are the ones who have contradictions that are relevant to the story. They’re interesting because they’re in conflict. For example, a lawyer who has profound respect for justice and the rule of law, but spends her nights as a secret vigilante makes me want to know who she is and why she is who she is – she will almost always be in deep conflict.”
For writing a great character description, Rob suggested:
“For me, (a great character description is) something specific that somehow gives a glimpse into their worldview makes a character description interesting. Looks are the least interesting and relevant unless its specific to the character’s function.”
Lastly, my good friend Ruth Atkinson, formerly a development executive who now provides consulting services for writers and also works with the Sundance Film Labs and Film Independent’s Project Involve, told me this about what makes for a great character in a screenplay:
“Authenticity. Depth. Originality. I love characters who make unexpected (but authentic) choices. It’s also key that they take action that is connected to their behavior and belief system. I often read characters who do things that aren’t in alignment with who they are. They do things because the writer needs them to not because it’s true for their character.”
For writing a great character description, Ruth suggested:
“Something clean and simple that defines their essence NOT a description of their height, weight, hair and eye color! Clothes only need to be described if they define them in some specific way or if they are unusual or unexpected i.e.: a parka in the middle of summer.”
As for me, a great character is one that is familiar and unique all at once. One that I can relate, connect to or in the very least be curious about, but one that is at the same time not entirely derivative. Conflict and wound are key to a substantive, meaningful character; they provide the depth and complexity that should then feed into and inform their story choices, in order to make it a meaningful journey.
In regards to character descriptions, my colleagues in the expert space gave you some great tips about what to include. Here, for me, are a few things you might want to leave out:
- Comparison to other seminal characters. Don’t describe your character as Walter White, as Al Bundy, as Scully. In all likelihood, the reader will find themselves spending much of the read comparing your character to the one you compared it with, and deciding for themselves whether that comparison holds up. It usually doesn’t.
- As many others said before me, steer clear of describing your characters by appearance only. Tell us about their character, not about their appearance. If you call out a physical trait, be sure that it’s integral to the story and to who they are.
- While I know that some people advocate for this, unless for a specific reason, don’t leave out age or in the very lease age range. I expect to read a 20-year-old character much differently than I would a 60-year-old character. If you can’t work in the number, work in the current life situation that would inform us about roughly where they are in their current life journey. Most importantly: Don’t leave me guessing or trying to figure out who this character is that I’m reading about.
Of course, different tips and suggestions will resonate with different writers. You by no means have to take all of them or figure how to incorporate every suggestion made in this blogpost into your characters or character description. But take just one or two, and hopefully your character work will become stronger and stronger!