How to write better characters: outline them using verbs only

B. O'Malley

How to describe characters using only verbs

How to describe characters using only verbsOne of my writing partners and I are working on a new horror feature script, and we’re in the outlining/beat sheeting stage right now.  Our characters aren’t quite gelled yet, and we’re both firmly entrenched in the belief that character begets plot, so outside of a few key visual sequences we’ve sketched out, our plot hasn’t come together yet.

Because it’s waiting for them characters to be baked first.  Or, if not baked, at least rolled up into little doughblobs on the counter that we can point to and recognize.  Also: Mmm.  Doughblobs.

See, we’re not interested in making a horror film along the lines of most modern horror films, which usually either (a) the torture porn route, or (b) the dumb teenagers having sex and getting slaughtered route, or even (c) the paranormally spooky-kid on the poster route.  No sir, as screenwriters, me and my writing partner demand actual characters and an actual plot stemming from their decisions. Anything less is hack.

So when we discovered we had a dozen or so characters that all needed to be interesting and three-dimensional, as well as differentiated from each other, he suggested we try to write better characters by simply describing each character using only verbs.

That is, no adjectives.  Just verbs.

And I, for one, was sold.

That is, instead of this:

TEDDY:  Believes in himself.  Very cocky. Has a chip on his shoulder and is out to get laid with Serena, who he’s known since high school.  Drives a red Mustang, wears a letterman jacket.  Can’t stand whiners like Chris and Jerry, and is happy to leave them behind.

We did this:


And instead of this:

SERENA:  Sexy, wears sexy clothes to tempt Teddy and Jack.  Spoiled and rich. Likes to spend Teddy’s money. She tolerates the other guys because she wants them to want her, but she can’t stand Jill, and will stop at nothing to humiliate her.

apply lipstick

The idea is that thinking of your characters using only action verbs helps you flesh out who they are, and gives you ideas for specific character beats, sequences, and most importantly, choices which will hopefully move the plot forward.

The best plot comes from character.  The best way to think of characters are by what they do, AKA what we can see and what we can hear, in the moment, not in some prolonged backstory or flashback.

I wouldn’t recommend describing your characters in the screenplay using nothing but verbs, but when you’re trying to figure out who they are so you can develop a plot stemming from the choices they make or the actions they take, it sure does help.

Give it a try!

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