After a play’s title, character descriptions are the first thing a reader encounters, yet many playwrights don’t give them much time, attention, or thought. Commonly, they are treated as cast breakdowns; and while character descriptions influence cast breakdowns, they aren’t exactly the same thing. When your play is in manuscript form (distinct from, say, a published acting edition), character descriptions are an entryway into the unique world of your play. Taking a moment to consider the specific manner in which you want to welcome the reader into this world is important.
Like stage directions, trends in character descriptions have changed over time. From the loquacious descriptions of Tennessee Williams to the minimalist style of Samuel Beckett, there is no one correct way to fashion them. Nevertheless, there are a couple of choices that immediately signal to the reader that you are a writer in charge of your material.
Just the facts
There’s nothing wrong with providing sparse information in a character description. This encourages the reader to discover the characters on their own upon entering the play. Furthermore, someone who reads a ton of scripts may merely scan the character list anyway. You may include nothing but names, and in fact, if the names intrigue and the play has an abstract style, this may be the best choice.
If the play is more realistic and the ethnic identity, gender, and age of the characters are pertinent, add these with as much specificity as you like. Also, it’s never a bad idea to include a tad of humor.
YURI, male, 50s, white
GENEVIEVE, female, 30s, black
LION, a lion
YURI, cisgender male, 50s, 2nd generation Russian American
GENEVIEVE, cisgender female, 30s, 1st generation Senegalese American
LION, genderqueer, Panthera leo
While these examples are brief and to the point, each subtly signifies different things. Example C indicates that the play will address specific issues of identity, while Example A suggests more abstract characterizations.
Whatever style you use, make sure you’re consistent with each character. If you’re including ethnicity, make sure to list it for every character. Whiteness is not an assumption; it’s a racial identity.
Sometimes it’s effective to address the central theme of your play head-on through the character descriptions. This technique readies the reader for what is in-store and encourages them to read the text through that particular lens. For example, if I were writing a play about how finances and class affect relationships, I might write the character descriptions as follows:
YURI, male, 50s, Russian-American, has two hundred thousand in his retirement savings and five dollars in his checking account.
GENEVIEVE, female, 30s, Senegalese-American, has five million in her retirement account and fifty-thousand in her checking.
LION, penniless but happy
Here the reader has the financial history of each character in mind as the play begins. It will permeate the subtext of the play, which can be a powerful thing. If not used wisely, it can also undercut the play. If, for example, Genevieve having more money than Yuri is an important surprise in the play, don’t give it away in the character descriptions.
YURI, a man in middle age who will always pay for dinner even if he overdraws his account.
GENEVIEVE, a woman on the cusp of forty who wishes she spent her thirties eating, drinking, and praying instead of working as a mortgage lender.
LION, an animal who has no concept of money. He does, however, have a very strong concept of dinner.
What I like about this technique is that it encourages creativity in your descriptions. Readers always appreciate originality, and giving a character a pithy, thematic description often feels fresh.
Descriptions that introduce voice
Although extensive, paragraph-length character descriptions have largely gone out of style, occasionally I’ll read one that really jumps off the page. This happens when the playwright in question has strong prose that magnifies their particular voice. If your descriptions are long and workman-like, cut them to the essentials. The reader doesn’t need a character’s backstory to begin the play. If, however, you’re inclined to use character descriptions to quickly establish your confidence as a stylist, go for it. Just try not to be too indulgent. I’ll give you an example, and you can decide for yourself if I’m guilty.
A Russian American businessman who’s gone out of business three times.
The first time, he borrowed three hundred thousand dollars from his Uncle, a shady character, if ever there was, and opened a bakery, though he didn’t know flour from baking soda. He opened the bakery for the love of a woman, of course, a Czech woman who loved kolaches more than she loved Yuri’s Uncle—yes, the money-lending one. It ended badly, and now Yuri only has one eye.
Next he opened a food truck specializing in Borscht; he was a better cook than baker, but he had a hard time competing with the Thai food truck down the block, as Thai cuisine is superior to Russian cuisine in every way, especially Borscht. It didn’t help that Yuri abandoned his truck every day at the noon hour to queue at the Thai truck for a delicious heaping pile of Pad See Ew to which he became completely addicted and was made fat.
What? You want to know about the third business? Well, you’ll have to read the play for that, but suffice it to say, at the top of this play, Yuri has one glass eye, a corpulence to rival Louis XIV and in his possession, one last shot at the American Dream in the shape of a shoe shining stand at Midway airport in Chicago.