Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How to describe minor characters

Chris writes: Should I assign names to the minor characters in my feature? I don't want readers to get "character overload".

There's no hard and fast rule about this, but when characters are named "WOMAN #1" or "COP #1," it signals to me that I don't really have to pay attention to these people because if they were important, they'd have names. I would try to avoid writing a ton of unnamed characters in your script, because readers will gloss over them and because we'd rather spend time learning more about the main characters we do care about. Sometimes a story requires a lot of characters and you can't avoid these people, but take a step back and reassess if you introduce thirty different people by page 10 (yes, I've seen this).

If a character is in multiple scenes, give him/her a name or perhaps a memorable epithet. Maybe this works better in comedy, but you can call people BANGS and FEDORA instead of WOMAN #1 and MAN #2. Even TALL COP or SKINNY COP. Anything that creates a visual image will be helpful and more interesting. If a character is only in one scene, it's fine to use a name like WOMAN, but make your choice functional. There's a SCRAPYARD OWNER in the NIGHTCRAWLER script, for example, which is more specific than MAN. You can also include someone's title in the name you use above dialogue, such as DETECTIVE GARCIA instead of just GARCIA. The goal is always clarity.

John August has also written helpful posts about introducing characters.

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