In Focus-Magazine

Ask Ellen
Saturday, 01.05.2008, 07:34 PM

Ask Ellen

By Ellen Jacoby

Creating Good Character Descriptions (Bios)


1. Casting Breakdown


When you send out your Casting Breakdowns, you need to think of them as marketing tools - you want to create an “advertisement” to attract the right actors to audition for each role.


Always ask yourself: why would any actor want to audition for my film? If it’s not for the money (or the craft service) - so why then?


It’s because actors want to work on an interesting story; they want to play a character that has depth; they want set experience; and they want clips for their demo reel.


2. Character Descriptions (Bios)


Ineffective Character Bios only show the “outside life” of the character. The trick is to also show part of the “inner life” of the character to add depth. By adding subtext in your character descriptions, you can attract more experienced actors who will also be better prepared at your audition.


Good Character Bios should explain essential physical and background information about the character, but also establish some conflict so an actor can play with it.


a. Your descriptions need to be written to attract (interest) actors.

b. You should use at least one “emotional conflict” to add to the description

c. Use subtext to create conflict within the character


While there are specificities of character that are necessary, it’s important to understand that outer traits (ethnicity, height, weight, etc.) are seldom integral to the actual character.


An ineffective bio only details those outer traits, whereas a good bio supplies a glimpse into the character’s inner life, which offers valuable insight into the role for the benefit of your potential actors.


For example, you might have a character who you view as:

A muscular, towering, Jamaican bouncer with a shaved head.


First, you should recognize that those are only the outer traits of the character and, in casting, you have to remain open to actors who might not exactly look the part (in fact, a lot of great roles are created by actively playing against type).


So instead, you should find the pertinent inner traits that point to the same character:

An imposing bouncer, intense and without fear.


In that description you can see immediately the character you’re describing, but you’re not chaining that character to specific physical characteristics.


Of course, there are certain aspects of physicality that are necessary to mention. If, for example, special skills are required in the role – like the ability to ride a bike or swim – then that should be mentioned. Similarly, you’ll want to specify if it’s integral to the story that two characters look physically related: brothers and sisters; parents and children etc.


Lastly, give some kind of description of what is required in the role. It’s important to casting if there are any physical demands, violence, implied nudity and/or sexuality in the part. In short, be precise in what you need; be flexible over what you don’t.


3. Character Descriptions should have two parts to them.


a. TEXT: Describe the “outer life” of the character? (Age, general description, what they do for a living etc.)


b. SUBTEXT: Describe some part of the “inner life” of the character (What is really going on inside of them. What conflicts do they have.)


EXAMPLE 1: “John is a 45 year old dishwasher who limps from a car accident when he was 7. He is passionate about classical music and he dreams of playing his violin in an orchestra. He lives at home with his mother and his step-father, who abused him when he was a child.”


EXAMPLE 2: “Mary is a vivacious, 25 year old university student studying Engineering. She grew up with three older brothers who always bullied her. She constantly pushes herself to be the best in a man’s world while struggling to accept her emotional, female side.

4. Sample Character Descriptions (Ineffective and Effective)




John is a skinny 28 year old Caucasian. He has short hair and a beard. He was born in Berlin and can speak fluent German. When he was 15 his parents divorced, and his mother brought him to North America. He felt ostracized in high school and spent most of his time reading the works of Bertolt Brecht. He now works as a clown.




John is a brooding German male in his late 20s. Even though he makes a living by entertaining children as a clown at parties, he emits an intense aura of defeat and depression. He’s obviously worn down by too many regrets, and seems to be wavering on the verge of a mental breakdown.



Ellen Jacoby

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