Character Description… don’t need to know what they look like!

I often tell students (and clients!) that nobody cares what your characters LOOK like. Hair color, dress size, looks, etc. None of that matters to an actor or the reader. You want to write something that will make a reader attach to the character. You want to write something to make an actor will shout to their girlfriend, “I’ll climb over my grandmother to play this guy!”

Here’s a character description without a whit of physical description. But, by the end, we know this guy. N.b., this is way way way too long to put in a screenplay; it’s from a New Yorker profile from 1936. My favorite line, of course… the last one.

“Being self-taught, his mental processes are mysterious; he is missionary-minded; his thinking is emotional, his conclusions material. He has been studious with strange results: he says he regards liberalism as a form of tyranny, hatred and attack as part of man’s civic virtues, and equality of men as immoral and against nature. Since he is a concentrated, introspective dogmatist, he is uninformed by exterior criticism. On the other hand, he is a natural and masterly advertiser, a phenomenal propagandist within his limits, the greatest mob orator in German annals, and one of the most inventive organizers in European history. He believes in intolerance as a pragmatic principle. He accepts violence as a detail of state, he says mercy is not his affair with men, yet he is kind to dumb animals. … His moods change often, his opinions never. Since the age of twenty, they have been mainly anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-suffrage, and Pan-German. He has a fine library of six thousand volumes, yet he never reads; books would do him no good — his mind is made up.”

Janet Flanner on Hitler

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Character Description… don’t need to know what they look like!

  1. Ian

    I’ve read scripts though where they do descirbe somephysical traits though. For example, if you need someone to be attractive, shouldn’t you write that? I have seen than in scripts.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      If it matters to the story that they’re good looking, tell us. But height and weight and hair color don’t generally matter. Concentrate more on their character and personality… make ’em sound like someone a major star is going to say, “Whoa. I want to play THIS GUY!”

      • Carole

        Physical description is important if it reflects something unique about character. Take Hitler’s mustache–so weird.
        The diabolical mustache is a character in itself.

        If

  2. now that is fine character descrip…

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