Magic Bullet: Characters, Concepts, and How to Look Like a Pro

I was working on a project the other day — a pilot — and reading over an outline that was using shorthand names like DOE-EYED BEAUTY and THRILL JUNKIE when I realized I haven’t talked at all on this blog about the importance of character names, character descriptions, and how vital it is to take what I like to call “the 30,000 foot view” of a project before writing page 1 of it.  Fasten your seatbelts ladies and gents, this rocket’s about to take off.

Character Names

For many writers, character names are the last thing they think about. It’s an afterthought to plot, concept, dialogue bits, That Really Awesome Twist At The End, etc.  I don’t blame you — all those other things are a lot more fun to think about and write about. But crafting a character name is actually just as important as crafting an attention-grabbing title (more on that later).

Here’ are three tips about character naming:

1. It’s an unwritten rule to make sure none of your characters’ names sound alike, or start with the same letters/sounds. You don’t want a Kara and a Sara in the same script, nor do you want a Karen or a Catherine in a script with a Kara. You don’t want a Darcey in a script with a Marcey, or a Mary and a Marcey, or a Mary and a Mike, etc. There are a TON of exceptions to this rule (the show Mike & Molly, for instance), but for aspiring writers, it’s best to be aware of how your character names SOUND, and LOOK on the page. The reason being that many readers skim, and you want to make sure that even a skimmer gets who is talking at all times. It’s basically to lower the probability of confusion, but the other reason is …

waldo abducts carmen

The Last Known Photograph of Carmen Sandiego

2. Make your character names interesting and distinguishable from all the other characters we already know and love. Now, I’m not saying you need to give all your characters  names like Carmen Sandiego or Sanjaya or Action Jackson or Sir Reginald Pufnstuf the Third, but you do need to give them names that spark a memory of some sort. For instance, why do you think on cop shows or hospital shows they all refer to each other by last name? Well, obviously they are first going for “authenticity,” but also it makes it SO much easier to give them distinguishable names — from each other and other characters that have come before. To show you that you don’t need to name all your characters with crazy first or last names, here’s a good example: MEREDITH GREY on Grey’s Anatomy. Now, you might be thinking “but, uh, Mike … that’s kind of plain, dude.” Well … as many of you know, the name of the show actually has a lot to do with one of the seminal books in medicine, Gray’s Anatomy. Shonda Rhimes took that knowledge, gave her protagonist the last name GREY, and viola — she had a clever little title and name for her protagonist.  Sometimes, it’s not about having a name be crazy that distinguishes it — it’s how the name connects with something bigger than itself in the minds of the audience, and making that fit with your own show or movie. Which leads me to …

3. Maybe most importantly, have your characters’ names SAY something about the character. I’ll give you an example from the pilot I was reading — the Doe-Eyed Beauty, the one who is naive? Her name is EVE. The Thrill Junkie who’s a tomboy is Samantha, but goes by SAM (a name that could be for a boy), and the tough old woman with sharp edges goes by her last name, CUTTER. These aren’t perfect names in any way, shape, or form — but they illustrate that each character’s name says something about her. If CUTTER’s name had been CALLIOPE, for instance, sure it would have been distinct, but it wouldn’t have matched or said anything about her actual personality. Now, there is an argument to be made for naming against type — like naming a huge mofo TINY, for instance — but personally I find that played out. That one’s just a personal preference.

Character Descriptions

Don’t even get me started on Character Descriptions. After reading tens of thousands of scripts, I’ve seen it all, and most of it’s bad. Let me show you three examples, and you tell me which is the best of the bunch:

1.  LUKE CAFFERTY (17) wears a tight-fitting polo shirt and loose dark blue jeans. He’s got a smile that will blow you away.

2. LUKE CAFFERTY (17) is scrappy, with a short fuse but a big heart, and it’s obvious his polo and jeans are hand-me-downs.

3. LUKE CAFFERTY (17) is a smooth ladies’ man with a temper, a heart-melting smile and a fire in his eyes. His clothes are all hand-me-downs but his body makes it work. You never know what’s lurking beneath those baby blues, but man … all the ladies like to find out.

FNL

Couldn't resist the shout out to the once great Friday Night Lights

Which one of those 3 do you think is the best? Now, mind you, none of them is perfect — but which one would you pick out of a lineup?

If you guessed number 1, we definitely need to have a talk.

If you guess number 3, we need to have a little talk.

If you guessed number 2, congratulations! You win a slow clap.

Like I said, none of those was perfect, but let’s examine them one by one:

1. One of the biggest problems I see with character descriptions is the focus on what the character is wearing, and not on WHO THEY ACTUALLY ARE. While knowing what they are wearing could be a key element, focusing on that is a waste of space. We need to know ABOUT the character, not what they wear.

Think of character description this way: what can you say about a character, in one sentence, that would let both actors and directors immediately “get” how that character acts and reacts from scene to scene. You have one (maybe two) sentence(s) to capture a character’s essence so that every time we read a line of dialogue, we can guess how that character might say it, why he might say it, and what might be the subtext beneath what he’s saying. A tall order, for sure — but it’s one more aspect that separates the pros from the amateurs.

If you’ve ever seen Justified on FX, you know what a stoic individual the protagonist is — and yet it’s a new kind of modern stoic that is very different than the westerns of yore. It might be put this way:

justified

The modern face of a stoic cowboy

RAYLIN GIVENS (30s) is the kind of stoic who wears his heart in his holster — and he’s a quick draw.

It’s a mediocre and slightly over poetic/over subtext-y description, but it gets the point across quickly (he’s stoic most of the time, but can have flashes of anger/other emotions), and hints at his unnatural ability to draw and fire his gun lightning fast.  If you’ve seen the show, I could have easily described him like this:

RAYLIN GIVENS (30s) is the last U.S. Marshal left to wear a cowboy hat and carry himself like Billy the Kid, but he pulls it off nicely.

But that would have committed the sin of focusing too much on how he looks/what he’s wearing (though the “carrying himself like Billy the Kid” could have been useful).

2. So why is the second description the best of the original bunch of three? First, it’s short, sweet, and to the point. It only tells us what we need to know, and moves on. No dilly dallying, extraneous words or phrases, and it’s enough for a reader to understand who the character is and how he might react to certain situations. If you break it down, what can you infer from just that one sentence?

A. He’s probably poor.

B. He’s probably had to fight for survival in some way, whether in the home or in the neighborhood or on the streets.

C. There’s something in his home life that’s big that has affected him and shaped him — either he’s not gotten much love from his life at home, or he has, but it’s been from unconventional sources (like a single parent, or a sibling).

These are the kinds of things an actor or director might read into “short fuse/big heart,” and in the pilot I read with that exact description, the character had a hard life on the streets, but was loved and supported by her family. That constant struggle shaped her, and made her scrappy.  When faced with various events in the pilot, we could guess how she might react based on the initial description. THAT’S a good character description.

3. So what was wrong with the last one? It did give us some good starting points for figuring out who this character is, right? Well, yes, but what else did it do? First, it took way too damn long. It’s a little flashy/Shane Black-y in how it talks to the audience (which can be fine, as long as your script only has a couple spots in it with that type of writing), and in my mind, it’s a little redundant. It’s got some good stuff in it, no doubt, but bear in mind length and redundancy.

So, that’s it. You want to make sure your character descriptions POP as much as your snappy dialogue and crisp, short, sweet, action lines. You want to make sure it tells us what we need to know ABOUT the character that we can guess how he or she will react to the events that unfold, and you want anyone who reads it to go “oh, this is a good character” from the start.

Okay, so let’s look at something completely different …

The 30,000 Foot View

I’m going to write about this further in another column, but the one thing I wish more writers thought about BEFORE they put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard was: “Who’s the audience?” I’m going to explore this further with writing TV pilots in a future column, but for now, let’s talk about features.

Are you asking yourself this question when you’re formulating ideas or inking out an outline? “Who’s going to plop down 20 bucks to watch this?” If you don’t have a definitive answer, or if your answer is a very limited market, like, say … sweatshop workers in Thailand, then it’s time to re-examine your idea. I’m not saying it’s time to change it, just maybe re-examine it and change an element or two that would make it appealing to a mass audience (say, males 18-45).

simpsons

I have NO idea why this image comes up when you Google "sweatshop workers in Thailand."

Let me give you an example:

A movie about the trials and tribulations of a sweatshop worker in Thailand.

Who’s going to watch that? Not a lot of people. What about this:

A movie about three Americans who rescue a sweatshop worker from his factory in Thailand.

Okay … now we’re getting somewhere. Now you’ve added a point of view that more audiences can understand (American), but … it still sounds a little … too depressing. In fact, it sounds like an interesting plot to a novel, which has page count and ability to take its time, and can explore a number of themes to their fullest extent. Which brings me to:

Are you asking yourself: “Does this need to be a movie? Is that the best medium for this story?” I can’t tell you how many great stories are crammed into the small box that is a movie script that would have been better served as novels, or some other form of storytelling, and not in a screenplay. Many times, these scripts are about inner demons, or inner conflict, or a protagonist that is his own antagonist (with no other outside force or person that is a real “antagonist”), or a protagonist that never DOES anything, just thinks about it … etc. If you’re best, juiciest, coolest, most interesting bits are internal, and not external, this question is especially important to ask yourself.

Let’s try one more version:

When three Americans encounter a sweatshop worker during their blow-out bachelor party in Bangkok, they take him out on the craziest night of his life.

It’s The Hangover 2 if you replace “sweatshop worker” with “monk.” Kind of. Either way, you get the point. We started at A, and got to “high-concept comedy.”

So make sure you’re always looking at any new ideas that pop into your mind through the eyes of a studio executive. Ask yourself “who’s the audience? Who will pay 20 bucks to watch this? Does this need to be a MOVIE?” and you’ll be ahead of the game.

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at michael@scriptawish.com. I’m always happy to help.

Here’s your Inspiration for a Four Quadrant, High Concept movie

Quick Note: I will be teaching a couple classes at this year’s Screenwriting Expo, one of which will include offering one-on-one mentoring on-site for writers looking to develop and focus their script ideas.  Shoot me an e-mail at michael@scriptawish.com if you’re going to be at the Expo and are interested in reserving your own 20 minute block of time.

Previous Articles:

How to Write Studio Quality Dialogue

How to Write Studio Quality Action Lines

How to Write an Industry Bait Logline

How to Write an Industry Bait Query Letter

How to Determine if Your Movie Concept is Commercial

14 thoughts on “Magic Bullet: Characters, Concepts, and How to Look Like a Pro

  1. Dave

    Sorry Michael, Howard and Hari are 100 percent correct. You should never include a character’s personality traits (“short fuse”, “quick witted” “jealous-type”, etc.) in your character descriptions. Those things need to revealed through the character’s actions (ideally, as early in the story as possible.) This is Screenwritiong 101 stuff — it needs to be demonstrated through action and visuals. Writing a character description the way you’ve recommended is considered amateurish and might very well stop a professional reader right there on the page.

    In the second half of the article, I liked what you did by adding the American character to the drama of the Thai sweatshop worker. But then you took things too far and basically recommended that the drama be turned into a farce with a completely different story (only retaining the nationality of one of the main characters.) You’re right about the comedy being far more marketable but it needs to stated that scripts with concepts like the one you originally started with do still get sold.

  2. Jackie Devereaux

    Knowing what the producers/studios want obviously puts you ahead of everyone else in getting your spec scripts read. Logic tells me that if I write a “marketable concept” then producer/studios will want to read it because they are in the movie business to MAKE MONEY. Plain and simple.

  3. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    @Hari and Richard

    A few things – first, everything I write is based on A: my own experience as a lit manager in Hollywood, B: conversations with numerous industry friends and contacts, and C: what has worked for the aspiring writers I have helped get agents, managers, options, and/or a sale. I don’t thnk that everythng I write is gospel, and I certainly don’t think that every single rule needs to be followed.

    Here’s the key takeaway: everything I write is meant to lessen the probability that your script ends up in the trash – again, based on my own experiences and conversations with producers, agents, and managers in Hollywood and in the studio system.

    I noticed that at least one of you is from Europe, and I will gladly admit that I know absolutely zero about how things work over there. Maybe my advice doesn’t apply across the pond.

    As well, while I know what the actual big wigs at BAD ROBOT or Paramount like, I don’t necessarily know what intern A or Reader B likes or would consider a “trash able” offense. I know what most readers would like, and I know what my contacts who can make careers like. Again, all of this is in the studio system and not independent or foreign or any other type of cinema that’s cutting edge or unique.

    As far as the studio system being paint by numbers or “an industrial process”, I can only say that its a symptom of the corporation culture. Luckily, for every 3 or 4 TRANSFORMERS there’s a PACIFIC RIM or THE DARK KNIGHT.

  4. Richard P

    @hari – A screenplay is not the film and never will be. It is only ever a proposal for a film. The insistence that this proposal must confine itself to a veridical description of the ‘on-screen’ action (and the dialogue) strikes me as an over-zealous and rather puritanical wariness of not being deceived, a denial of exuberance and of otherwise legitimate strategies for articulating the envisaged cinematic experience, tone, in particular.

    It’s kind of dismal, but then, as Michael reminded me, this is an industrial process and if you want to proceed, you have to adhere to the specifications required, your papers have to be in order.

  5. Hari

    As a professional script reader and editor I couldn’t disagree more with your comments on character descriptions, and am in total agreement with Howard. Telling the reader that the character has a ‘short fuse but a big heart’ is affording them a character appraisal that the audience wouldn’t be privy to. Name, age range and distinguishing features (including clothing) if relevant to the story. That is all. Anything else is irrelevant and gives the reader a bias towards a character which has not been informed by the actions of that character.

  6. Peter Enright

    Well crafted article that makes many important points. It resonates with me in an unusual way since I’ve just completed a screenplay that has mostly Russian names, and yes they are all real names with significance to the characters, but you’d have to know Russian to see that connection.

    Poka-poka!

  7. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris Post author

    @Richard P

    I understand completely what you mean. And to each their own on the ‘Eve’ thing. As a lit manager, with little to no time, I wouldn’t have tossed a script just because one of the characters was named Eve, but again, to each their own.

    The sweatshop worker loglines were off the top of my head and meant merely as bad but hyperbolic examples to make a point. The first logline, which you would have preferred, would make an amazing book or fantastic independent movie, but for aspiring writers it’s an impossible sell. All of my articles are centered around one thing: teaching writers the reality of writing specs that a studio would buy. That’s it. I’m not training anyone to write an independent movie – anyone can do that on their own with some fundraising, and *fingers crossed* make a living at it.

    I have nothing against original, creative, unique, independent cinema, in fact ALL of my favorite movies are independent or foreign – but my columns are focused on teaching any writer the tools, tips, and tricks to elevating their writing to a level that spec scripts (in this very tough spec market) need to be at if they are interested in working in the studio system. This isn’t “every snowflake is precious” – this is the nitty gritty, less than artsy (at times) reality of writing to break into the studio system.

    Again, you raise some great points, and I thank you for your comment.

  8. Richard P

    Good point about using surnames. Very good.

    (If I were a reader, I would toss any script that had christened a character ‘Eve’.)

    In response to the ‘sweatshop worker’ log-lines: I have to say I would be interested in hearing more about the first version, but can tell you now I would not pay any sort of currency to see the other two. I’m glad there are filmmakers out there who are not taking the ’30 000 ft view’.

  9. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris Post author

    @Howard

    I understand completely what you’re saying, and if you have ever read any of my other articles (in particular, my article on ACTION DESCRIPTION), you’ll note that I emphasize repeatedly the need for brevity. I also emphasize the need to understand characters, subtext, and plot by what characters DO, rather than what they SAY. All of that is a given.

    We could go back and forth about why one works more than another all day long, and we might both be right, but for me, the reason why number one is weakest of the bunch is because it doesn’t tell me anything about the character. It’s brief, sure, thats good, but the fact that he’s got a great smile doesn’t tell me anything about who he is. What he wears doesn’t do much either.

    I agree completely that we should get to know a character by his/her actions, that’s a basic given. But great writers create a proper shorthand with the reader upfront – that is to say getting them in the right frame of mind when thinking about a character, who they are, and how they might approach things – right off the bat. That’s what makes the difference between someone who nails all the basics we’ve mentioned, and being able to write like the professionals.

    Truly, thank you for the comment and for your excellent points.

  10. Howard

    As a reader for several screenplay competitions and a production company, I do agree with the first half of the article, but strongly disagree with the second half. I find that indeed all three character descriptions are faulty, but I would prefer the first simply because it seems to be the shortest. The second and third one are problematic because they tell too much unnecessarily. The second one has a description of “scrappy” etc. This should be unnecessary. If the character is “scrappy”, etc., this should be dramatized. If it’s not dramatized, then this description is inaccurate. If it is dramatized, then this description is redundant. It’s also annoying. I don’t like being told about the characters; I need to know if they work outside of whatever description the author gives. The ideal description for me as a reader is generally a name, an age range and male or female if the name is ambigous (the author here should probably mention that if the screenwriter gives a character a gender neutral name, the writer needs to be sure the gender of the character is identified–I’ve had writers that hadn’t and it cause some real confusion at times). Costume should be general in description (hand me downs or used or vintage is good here), and the polo and jeans should only be mentioned if they are important to the plot (otherwise let the costume designer earn her keep). So here, RAYLIN GIVENS (17), wearing second hand clothing followed by some action is what I want. The descriptions in the article, as a reader, would instantly make me raise my eyebrow because they suggest the screenwriter has a weakness when it comes to creating characters and has to compensate for it by writing descriptions.

  11. Ian

    I can’t tell you how helpful this article was. I have actually been struggling with my characters names on a short script that I’m working on and I too have just ignored that part and decided to come back to it later. But now that I finished my first draft, I really have to start thinking about their names. Character names are always the hardest for me. I usually know how they will act and what they will say but I’m clueless about their names.

  12. writeproBobby Fleeks

    I am going to “go back” and read the entire article, but before I do, your post hits a definate mark for screenwriters like me.

    I for one, ALWAYS NAME MY CHARACTERS FIRST! I make up who they are, their background and what they are called even nicknames if so directed by the character (yes, they tell me who they are sometime, and what they want to be called).

    No I am not crazy or psychotic, but characters who have names and background are easier to write. You know who they are and can give definition to their actions because you understand the motivation of the their character more than just “a Johnny Depp type” or SPACED OUT COWBOY piloting a shooting rocket across the outreaches of space.

    It gives a more compelling picture to an audience reading the script to know the name of your character than just a discription. I agree whole heartedly!

    Just my thoughts on the subject BEFORE I go and finish reading, but a great start to an article that more writers should read and understand.

    A NAME IS NOT JUST A NAME. It can make your story come alive in the mind of the reader!

    Thanks,

    Bobby Fleeks

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