Sunday, October 31, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #28: Describing exactly what characters look like

I have been very happily occupied this week with the San Francisco Giants’ run at the Texas Rangers in the World Series, but I’m taking a moment during game four (also while my Saints are taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers, BTW!) to type up this quick tip for you: Unless there is an important reason that we need to know exactly what a character looks like, don’t describe her appearance in detail.

Here are the three things that we need to know about every major character: name, gender and approximate age. We don’t need to know that a woman’s hair falls in wisps around her angelic face. We don’t need to know that a young boy’s freckles dot his face like all the constellations of the night sky. And we never, ever need to know that a woman in your script is beautiful or that a man is handsome – especially "ruggedly handsome." Unless you tell us otherwise, the actors are going to be preternaturally gorgeous.

There are two good reasons why you want to avoid telling us too much information about how your characters look. The most important is that the casting director is going to want to find the best and biggest star possible for each role. The more demands you make on how each character looks, the smaller the number of actors who will be able to play that role there will be. Of course, there are plenty of ways to change an actor’s appearance, but why place any unnecessary demands on the casting director? The second reason is that you always want your writing to be as economical as possible. If you want to make the people who read your script happy, then limit the amount of information about how your characters look to the bare minimum possible.

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