Saturday, February 4, 2017

Character Introductions: Part 5

Think there’s nothing to introducing characters in a script? Think again!

Over the next few weeks, I’m doing a deep dive into the subject of character introductions. Why the hell would I do that?

Read Part 1 for background.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

Part 5: Physicality and Personality

I can not tell you how many times I have read a character’s introduction where the writer’s exclusive focus has been on describing that individual’s physical attributes. The color of their hair (blonde, brunette), the general shape of their body (tall, short, skinny, fat), how they might be perceived by the public (handsome, beautiful, frumpy). Sometimes the descriptions are pretty scant, sometimes the descriptions run on and on, down to the figure’s dress, pants, shoes, and socks.

Here’s the thing: A character’s physical description may be important, but it is almost never necessary unless what is being described is tied directly to something of meaning about who that individual is.

Let me put that another way to drive home the point: The only time you should describe physical attributes is if they convey something of significance about the character, some meaningful and memorable aspect of their personality as it relates to that figure’s involvement in the playing out of the story.

There are two guidelines about describing a character’s physical details when they are introduced:

· Is this information important?

· Why is this information important?

The key to these questions is almost always about how what is described reflects the character’s persona. Thus whenever you are tempted to comment upon a character’s physicality, you should always link that decision with their personality.

Physicality and Personality

People make choices about the clothes they wear. Those choices are an extension of their personality. A person who wraps herself up in a mink coat to go shopping at a grocery store is likely a considerably different individual than someone who is adorned in a leisure suit. Or how about the way the Dude is introduced in the script The Big Lebowski [written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen]:

Bermuda shorts and sunglasses [at night!] are tied directly to the Dude’s personality: “a man in whom casualness runs deep.” Thus an important visual reference.

Sometimes a character has no choice about how they appear to the world. In the script Avatar [written by James Cameron], the Protagonist Jake Sully is introduced this way:

Wheelchair conveys crucial information about Sully’s physical condition. The description of his eyes [“hardened by the wisdom and wariness of one who has endured pain beyond his years”] speaks directly to the character’s personality.

And what of body features and how they can reflect on a character’s persona? In the script Black Swan [written by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin], here is how the Protagonist Nina is introduced:

Nina’s bare feet say it all: corns, blisters, bunions, proof of the hard work she endures as a ballerina and her commitment to that hard work.

There are many components of a character’s physicality a writer may focus on when introducing them. Here are some of the key ones:

· Body: type, size.

· Face: expression, shape.

· Hair: style, appearance.

· Eyes: focus, outline.

· Mouth: language, contour.

· Gait: movement, speed.

· Attire: design, economics

· Demeanor: attitude, movement.

All of these present opportunities to help craft a compelling and memorable introduction, but none of them mean anything unless they convey something of importance about the character’s inner self and speak to their personality.

Another consideration on how much detail to go into is the importance of the character to the story. That brings us to the subject of primary, secondary and tertiary characters.

That’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.


Character Introductions: Part 5 was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Character Introductions: Part 5

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