Character Descriptions: The Good, The Bad and the Sexist

I’ve spent this week writing, designing and animating the presentation for a course I’ll be teaching next month. It’s about my approach to character development. Of all the different aspects of screenwriting, it is the part of the craft I care about more than anything else.  In my opinion, nothing matters more than the creation of interesting, well-rounded characters. Interesting stories flow naturally from well-rounded characters and, as a consumer, I prefer stories that are character driven.

I also got into an online fight about sexism in writing. It all stemmed from my response to an article about a twitter hashtag game which roasted male authors for their sexist descriptions. I made the mistake of questioning the idea that “in general men are bad at writing female characters, whereas women don’t make the same mistakes.” 

For me, gender is irrelevant to writing, there are good writers and there are bad writers. By and large, bad writers create one-dimensional characters because they can’t do any better. This isn’t to say there aren’t good male writers who are also sexist pigs. That goes without saying. It is always going to be possible to be good at what you do and be morally reprehensible at the same time. What bothered me intellectually about the article was the implicit idea that sexist, one-dimensional female characters and the portrayal of women as objects is an inherent trait of male writers. What really bothered me on an emotional level was the lack of kindness. The older I get, the less tolerant I have become of any form of debate based on sneering and contempt. It’s a trait I find particularly unattractive in writers because without empathy writing becomes exactly the thing these people were mocking, a weak parody or a cliche´. 

All I really wanted to get across was one simple idea, that a discussion about writing good characters is vastly more interesting than getting into a pointless debate about whether men or women are better writers. In that, I failed.

One interesting thing did come out of the “debate.” I have learned that many screenwriters are really bad at writing character descriptions. The character description is the short sentence we stick into a script the first time a character is introduced. They tend to look like this:

BOB (36), a flushed-faced, bear of a man, sprawls across his seat, barely touching the keyboard with his extended, nicotine-stained digits.

The idea of these character introductions is to give the reader a way to instantly grasp and understand the character. However, all too often, people write introduce new characters without knowing anything about them. Therefore, the descriptions tend to be generic physical descriptions and cliche´s. So, for example:

BOB (36), a dark-haired, tall man in a suit.

Writers who don’t develop characters before writing automatically reach for cliche´s and bland generalities. And, nothing is more bland, generic and cliche´d than a description of a female character which is entirely based on how attractive she is. For instance, an example of a bad female character introduction would be:

SUE (34), a leggy blond

Nothing indicates a writer’s lack of planning and inexperience quite like a generic character description. A good character description creates an instantly recognisable caricature and does so in such a way they can be easily visualised and distinguished from the rest of the cast. Basically, we answer the question, what is it about this person which defines them? Good character descriptions don’t appear out of thin air, but they’re a lot easier to write if you really understand what makes your character tick. To introduce SUE properly we need to understand what it is about her that makes her unique. So, for instance,

SUE (34), a fiercely intelligent woman, picks nervously at the lint on her cardigan, her rounded shoulders betraying her constant fear that the world is a hostile and dangerous place.

The irony is that a good caricature is often dangerously close to a cliche´. This is because we need the reader, and eventually the audience, to make immediate assumptions about a character. The reader and the audience draw on their internal stock-list of “types of people” and will slot the new character into the slot that fits best. It is then up to us, as writers, whether we confirm the reader’s prejudices or whether we are merely setting them up to be surprised. It may turn out that SUE, our intelligent, nervous character isn’t nervous at all, she’s really a clever cat-burglar or con-artist. Or not. She may be exactly what she first appears to be. What’s important is a character introduction gives the reader a very real sense of how they’re supposed to respond to this new person. 

Writing fiction is about creating a world seen from the unique perspective of the writer. Nowhere is this truer than in the way we create and describe characters. Imagine for a second that both myself and a female writer decide to create a fictional character loosely based on a mutual friend. If we both do our jobs properly the characters we will create will be very different. This is because our relationship with and our understanding of our mutual friend will be unique to us. Each of us will bring our life experiences, our politics, our observations and our specific experiences of our mutual friend to the writing process. This is the true meaning of diversity in the arts. It is about the myriad and limitless possibilities created by seeing the same thing from multiple points of view.