Bill Lancaster’s screenplay for “The Thing” is a great read for a number of reasons – one that struck me immediately, though, is the quiet brilliance of the first page. As a method for introducing a cast of characters, it’s at the same time somewhat unconventional and widely applicable. Unconventional because it presents the characters all at once as a list, rather than in-line as they appear (as the usual convention would have it) – but widely applicable because the characters are built so fully in so few words. If you haven’t read it, click the image to enlarge it.
Building a character in a screenplay
With 12 character descriptions in quick succession, “The Thing” screenplay shows how you can write a varied selection of characters with a few choice words. Whether presenting characters in-line throughout the screenplay or together as an intro like this – these descriptions are the way to do it. Two or three adjectives that define someone fully, a single carefully selected hobby or attitude that gives the rest of the depth you need.
Three words can paint a complete picture of personality: Edgy. Inquisitive. Overworked.
A simple phrase can present a wider sense of attitude: The pay is good.
What’s so well done here is that everything important about these characters’ place in the story is embodied in these descriptions. Before starting on the plot, you can immediately feel how these characters might interact, and how they might behave in a difficult situation. Sensitive – someone who cares, who might be sympathetic, who’s likely to become emotional. Stiff – there’s a man who’ll want to stick to procedure, lacking imaginative problem solving. Hates it here. Lousy at his job – how can he be reliable? But don’t mess – tough when he needs to be.
It’s such a full and interesting range of personality types, there’s a lot of depth in this short word count. Have a read and follow the example!