One of the most frequent notes I give on scripts is one I’ve given so often that I’ve created a macro for it on my computer. All I have to press is “;na”, and the following pops up:
“I would recommend not introducing characters by name, unless they’re about to do something memorable that really cements a specific impression of who they are. Otherwise, it tends to be hard for readers to distinguish between them, and remember who’s who.”
This note is typically in response to a paragraph of description where multiple characters are introduced for the first time.
This is almost always a bad idea. Why? Because those names will tend to all bleed together in the reader’s mind, and they won’t have a clear impression of any of them, to move forward with.
It’s much better to introduce characters one at a time, and on a “need to know” basis.
We need to give the reader enough information about any newly introduced character that they form a mental picture of who they are, so that they’ll remember them, next time they see their name in the script. The last thing we want is for them to not remember, and have to page back to where they were first introduced, to remind themselves who they are — or, more likely, stop reading the script forever, at that point.
This potential “reader experience” isn’t obvious to writers when they’re first starting out. They may think that if several characters are all present in a scene, and it’s the first time we meet all of them, then they need to jump in right away with names and descriptions.
It’s a reasonable assumption, because we do want the audience to know, at the top of each scene, who is currently present, so that someone who wasn’t described doesn’t later speak, and the reader thinks, “I didn’t even know they were present all this time.”
But there are ways to open such a scene without the dreaded list of names.
One way, of course, is to not have a big group of people all present and visible at the top of the scene. Figure out a way for them to show up one-by-one, and only after previous characters have been introduced enough that readers will have formed a clear impression of each of them.
Another way is to mention a group of people, but don’t single anyone out yet. Wait until one of them is about to have a moment in the spotlight, and THEN give them a name, by saying something like, “One of the women steps forward. This is TARA…”
What to include in character introductions
Okay, so we introduce people one by one, instead of in big clumps. What do we say about them, when we do? Another important question every writer labors over.
The answer is, just enough to create that memorable and clear impression, and not a word more.
It should not just be about their physicality and appearance. In fact, some of the least effective character introductions are the ones that get too specific with boring details about a character’s body and clothing, and don’t conjure up something really evocative. It’s much better to have one or two really telling physical details, rather than a laundry list of nondescript ones. Consider:
“A bottle blonde with a permanent limp from that time she fell down a staircase drunk.”
“Long blonde hair, medium build, wearing a summer dress with a light jacket over it.”
Which creates a clearer sense of the person, intrigues you, and makes you want to read more?
You’ll note that the “staircase drunk” thing seems to break the cardinal rule of description — that you should only write what would be clear to the viewing audience, which means no mention of inner thoughts or past events. As John August says in his great blog post about this, a good writer can cheat on this a little in character introductions. But only with things that conjure an image in the reader’s mind that an actor would be able to communicate with body language and, you know, acting.
A good actress can really run with the “falling downstairs drunk” back story, and though the viewer meeting her would not know about this incident, she will be able to communicate that she’s the type of person this might have happened to, once. And isn’t that the whole point? The reader doesn’t need to know that specific event — it’s just a fun way to quickly convey a snapshot sense of her.
When are you going too far with such a thing? You don’t want to say: “She grew up in Rhode Island, with a strict family she decided to rebel against.” An actress can’t tell us any of that. You should also avoid: “She’s upset because her boyfriend just left her.” While the emotion of “upset” is actable, the reason why is not. And in both cases, this information from the past and in her head will be lost on the audience.
Character introductions will ideally give us not just some sense of physical appearance, but more importantly, the kind of person they are — meaning what an average person’s first impression of this character would be. Preferably, it’s something vivid and specific, and helps the reader imagine a flesh-and-blood person .
Consider this from the 3/22/99 Richard La Gravenese revision of Susannah Grant’s script for Erin Brockovich:
“How to describe her? A beauty queen would come to mind – which, in fact, she was. Tall in a miniskirt, legs crossed, tight top, beautiful — but clearly from a social class and geographic orientation whose standards for displaying beauty are not based on subtlety.”
Do you see how we come away from this with an immediate sense of who this person is, or at least seems to be? Not only that, but we’re entertained and intrigued, at the same time. We imagine something cinematic and fun. There’s a playfulness to the writing that makes it a pleasure to read.
A few pages later, we find the following:
“ED MASRY, senior partner in the firm, enters the office and approaches his secretary’s desk. His avuncular presence masks a savvy legal mind, and his somewhat rumpled appearance indicates a disinterest in pretense.”
That sums up the character nicely. Then he enters to find Erin in his office, who is again vividly described: “…in a teensy, leopard-print mini-dress. As she jiggles a spike-heeled foot, everything about her shimmies gloriously. Except her head, which is held in place by a neck brace.” This is not our first time meeting her, but it’s another example of compelling character description. Note how the contradictions in each of these descriptions make things intriguing — in her case, beauty and sexiness contrasted first by “lack of subtlety,” and then by a neck brace; in his, rumpled avuncularity contrasted with savviness.
What happens next is their first meeting, in a scene which is laced with conflict and emotion, and gives us more of a sense of who each of them is.
And that’s the other thing to keep in mind when introducing a character — you don’t want to just create a vivid picture through your description; ideally, you want to give them some dramatic (or comedic) material, right away. This means a scene or a piece of a scene with strong conflict, spectacle, emotion and/or entertainment value, during which their behavior will further communicate to the reader exactly who this person is. I’m talking about the important stuff — their desires, frustrations, personality, background, and the kinds of actions and words they use to try to get what they want.
When you combine these two things — description and compelling action — the reader is easily able to remember that character next time they see them, and hopefully will be interested in what they do next.
Do you have to do this with every character you introduce? No. The more important they are, the more screen time they have, the more necessary it is. A waiter who only comes by to say, “Are you ready to order?” and is never seen again doesn’t need this. He probably only needs the word WAITER, if that’s all he’s going to be doing.
In a perfect world, we would be clear about which characters are important in our story, and have a clear dramatic function, and which aren’t. The latter should be discarded if possible, or just have quick passing mentions like this. The former should be introduced, one at a time, in a way that makes readers think, “I get what kind of person this is, and I’m intrigued.”
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