Friday, February 15, 2008

Character Counts!

Yes, character does count. No, we're not talking about honesty or humanitarianism or giving back or consideration of your fellow man or any of that silliness. We're talking about screenplays. So here are a couple quick tips that a lot of folks don't think about when it comes to presenting characters in their scripts.


There are two schools of thought on this. The first is never use boring, typical names throughout your script or you'll never be able to tell the characters apart. For example, which of these groups of pals will be easiest to remember and tell apart: Pete, Bill, Mike and Rob -- or Lazlo, Murph, Fuaz and Pyro? The last thing you want is anybody going back to page 14 trying to remember, "Which one was Pete again? Oh, yeah." Which can happen if the names are average and the characterizations lean.

The other school of thought is to NOT do that, because some people get put off by unusual names. And indeed, it is possible to go over the top on this. But a writer needs to do everything he or she can to make the characterizations distinctive. The character's name is important. So the next time you're about to name your character Generic Name #11B, instead consider reaching for the baby names book and looking up something a bit more distinctive. Would Homer Simpson be as funny if his name was Bill? Think about that.


For features, the rule is: CAPITALIZE character name (and put age in parenthesis) the first time they appear; thereafter, character name should be in regular mixed case in descriptions. Don’t be the guy who capitalizes your character names every single time. This is terribly annoying, and worse, makes it less clear when a new character arrives in the script.

Now some people get confused on this, because they see character names capitalized in SLUG LINES. And that is okay, because a slug line is the way we writers cheat and tell the director what to shoot without camera direction. So if you’re using a slug line to specify a particular shot, yes, capitalize the name—then switch back to mixed case when the description resumes. Like this...

Mad Dog levels the shotgun at Julio.


He’s done, and he knows it. He lowers the rake.

Mad Dog swats it away and brutally kicks Julio to the floor.

And remember to include at least a brief (1-word is okay!) description of every character you mention who speaks. Try to make these descriptions succinct and emblematic. We don’t need tons of detail about what someone is wearing or their mental state or what have you. Find a concise way to get at the kernel of what you’re trying to say. The director and costumer and actor will fill in the blanks...

NAZIR (22,) a walrus of a man
MARTHA (67,) frazzled, way too much makeup
WILLY SAN PIETRO (55) – Perpetually cheery in bathrobe and oxygen mask
LUNA (19) World’s most confused waitress
MARGIE-LYNN (40), sequined cowboy boots and a 10-gallon Stetson

We’re writers, so use this forced economy as an excuse to let your creativity shine! The snappier and tighter your character intros, the more readers will relax, feeling their in the arms of a sure-handed storyteller.


Great actors will fight to play someone who is complex, richly detailed and interesting. Giving the character back story, family, friends, hobbies, quirks, peccadilloes, idiosyncrasies, etc., goes a long way towards building a multidimensional person that we want to watch a movie about. Does he or she have a dramatic flaw or a goal? What personal problem does this character need to solve? How does he arc or change? What does he learn during the course of the story, and how does it enable him to resolve his internal AND external issues? Keep in mind: if your script is under 95 pages, that should be an immediate red flag -- what’s likely missing is depth of character, which needs to be established in the form of *character-defining scenes* in your first ten pages (establishing the character(s) in his/her known world.)

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