How Writers Write Character
Descriptions Based on Their Nature

People in interesting poses

If you’re interested in writing a screenplay or novel, know that how writers write character descriptions is critical. All moving parts of a story—plot, dialogue, setting, and so forth—must work together to act as a well-oiled machine. This article will focus on the critical nature of character descriptions.

Writing a character description means that you will write it lean. That is, you will avoid using unnecessary words and phrases to tell about the character. A character’s height and weight are unnecessary descriptions unless they are integral to the story. If your story is about an obese person, indicate in the description that she weighs 300 pounds.

Writing unnecessary character descriptions will limit the actor who may want to play the part in your screenplay. And it’s important to reiterate this point: 

In most cases, we do not need to know the character’s height, weight, hair color, or the fact that she looks exactly like Cher. Describe these specific physical characteristics only if they are critical to the plot. For example, the lead in Legally Blonde must wear blonde hair. Do not give a driver’s license description of your character, and do not pin the name of a famous actor or actress on your character, because it limits who can star in your screenplay. Your characters should not derive from other movies; they should be original. (Trottier 170-172)

What’s important is that your description tells something about the nature of the characters. This could be their mindset, appearance, and perhaps age. Get creative while making sure your descriptions are concise and vivid and usually confined to just a couple of sentences.

Find more of Trottier’s insights on Character Description.

Here are some examples that show how to describe a character in an original way:

  • Tasha Hamilton is a gold digger; her two-inch-long fingernails testify to her ferreting nature.
  • Morgan, 15, enters the three-legged race with his dog.
  • The young twins carve teeth from soap and place them beneath their pillows.

By learning how writers write character descriptions, you will get in the habit of writing unique ones. They will become second nature. You will focus on writing distinctive, vivid physical traits, mannerisms, or a character’s inherent nature. These will give you a leg-up on the path to success in storytelling.

Learn How Writers Write Character Descriptions 
Based on Setting

Man wearing swim trunks

Just as you can write character descriptions based on the nature of a character, you can write descriptions based on where they are (setting) or how they dress. These describe mood or tone. Let’s look at these simple descriptions:

  • Landry Collins, 40-ish, struts proudly into the black tie event wearing swim trunks.
  • Marmalade, an orange tabby, is the first in line at the fish market.
  • The snow blankets the man, nearly making him indistinguishable from a snowman, lacking only a carrot nose and a corncob pipe.

Sometimes a character has a visual identification, as Trottier calls it. This is something that makes them unique. If you’re describing Michael Jackson, who would he be without his glove? Who would Linus be without his blanket?

Learn How Writers Write Character Descriptions 
Based on Screenplays Versus Novels

Captain Jack Sparrow

Image created with Dream by Wombo

When writing a screenplay, writers must focus on brevity. There’s no room for lengthy descriptions. That’s why the above examples of character descriptions are brief and to the point.

Writing a novel or short ​​story, however, invites more expansive descriptions. These delve into a character's history, thoughts, and feelings. This expansiveness helps readers form a deeper emotional bond. 

In other words, when authors of books describe characters, their descriptions can be more detailed. However, descriptions are still based on a character’s nature, physical appearance, age, or setting.

For example:

Look at the screenplay description of Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean

"Jack Sparrow enters, a pirate of dubious morality and hygiene. Age indeterminable, his sly eyes peering out beneath a tattered tricorn hat." 

While this introduction of Jack Sparrow is brief, we immediately get a vivid picture of him.

We also get a vivid picture of our next character. It is from J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry Potter. His name is Severus Snape. Note that this character’s description is more detailed:

"He was a thin man, with sallow skin, a large, hooked nose, and greasy, shoulder-length black hair. Snape's cold, black eyes made it feel like he was forever peering right into your soul.”

In addition to the fact that character descriptions can be longer when you write novels or short stories, screenplays are always written in the present tense. In contrast, descriptions in other types of writings can be written in the past tense, as in Rowling’s description of Snape.

How writers write character descriptions depends on whether they are writing a screenplay, a novel, or a short story. Through well-crafted character descriptions, authors bring their creations to life by providing a solid foundation for the rest of the story to build upon.

Know that the words in a character description work together to create a captivating picture, making readers eager to understand more about the character.

Images created with Tai unless otherwise stated.

Trottier, David. The Screenwriter’s Bible : A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting and Selling Your Script. Los Angeles, Silman-James, 1998.