Mar 19

Character Introductions

The first time a character appears in the story, novel, or script you want to give the reader/audience;

  1. a memorable name
  2. a visual and memorable hook to make this character stand out
  3. make this character’s description part of the action of the scene.
  4. In scripts, it’s a good idea to put the character’s name in ALL CAPS – at least the part of it the audience will see again. MR. JOHN J. JONES is too much. MR. JONES is more than you need unless everyone is going to refer to the character as “Mr. Jones.” JONES will do but you might want to write it Mr. John JONES so the part of his name most needed jumps off the page.

(Don’t use italics for character’s name, although I’m using them here to make the names stand out in this blog.)

In prose, of course, names should not be in all caps. I know, there is the tradition of making a character’s name the very first words of a new chapter and even capitalize the first letter or even make that one letter as large as the first two or three lines of the page. For e-publishing at this point, doing that is a formatting nightmare. It can be done in some e-book formats and not in others. Thus the safest thing to do is just use the character’s name in the same size and type face as the rest of the story. If it takes this kind of gimmick to make your character’s name memorable, you need to find another name.

Different schools of thought surround the picking of a specific name. One tradition I picked up doing my dissertation on the old TV series GUNSMOKE is to give your characters unique names. Some episodes were even titled after the characters – like: Jeb, Kate Heller, Asa Jannin, Jubal Tanner, Phoebe Strunk, Yorky, and Hack Prine to name a very few.

To this end, I collect unique names I come across in the newspapers, on business signs along the highway, and in the twice a year graduation lists of students from university and high school celebrations.

Others prefer an “everyman” approach to naming their characters. This means using very common names for the characters, usually one step above John Jones and Mary Smith, to give their characters the appearance of being “just like you and me.”

Another good practice is to go down the alphabet and only use one character “A” and then one “B” and so on because (1) it makes it easier to type (the single letter will give you the whole character name in Movie Magic Screenwriter) and (2) it helps keep the characters straight in the reader’s mind. It may seem cute to have Amy, Abby, Ann, and Alice as character names, but it’s damned hard to keep them straight reading a script.


Don’t start with “A” and then name your next character something which starts with “B,” but if the ideal name for one of your characters is Tyler, then don’t have a Tony, Terry, Tom, etc.

A “trick-of-the-trade” is using a baby name book to find names that actually mean something related to your characters. A character named Barnes could be an animal-lover; someone named SEMPLE could be simple-minded; Bliss, always happy; Dawn, awakening. And there are others, not so obvious meaning you can discover which will lend support to your characterization.

Catherine — innocent

Megan – strong and capable

Bryce – son of a noble family

Drew – wise

Stewart – steward

Of course, you will have characters in a script like COP # 1, BUSINESSMAN, and OLD LADY. These characters don’t have to follow the guidelines we’re talking about here. In script you are requiring the hiring of an actor to portray these character and having the names in all caps make it easier for the production team to count the number of characters needed for the whole project as well as for individual scene.

Beside the bloated skinhead BARTENDER watching porn on cable TV, the only occupation of biker bar is MacQUEEN, burned out 40’s in a sleeveless denim jacket with faded gang patches, greasy jeans, cowboy boots, scars and tattoos who is breaking a rack of pool balls and sinking every last one with a single stroke.

I just happen to know that MacQueen means “son of a good man.” When this character later in the story turns out to be a good person, it will surprise the audience but the seed is planted in his name, even if I’m the only one that knows it, and in his very first action which reveals him to be precise, calculating, and through.

In prose, such not essential character can be created easily the all lowercase type.

  1. The visual and memorable hooks consist of “thumb nailing” the characters and is common in both scripts and in prose. The reason it’s popular in scripts is because it does not tie characters down so specifically that a wide array of actors could not perform the role without impacting the story.

For example, using hair or eye color, even height and weight as you would in proses, would be the kind of specifics a novelist or short story writer would rely upon, but these create casting problems for TV and film. For a script, for either stage or screen, it’s better to give us the few specifics we needed for the story but nothing that isn’t important. Age, sex, and perhaps costume would be needed for a script.

Consider a script entry like, “JOANNA, 50’s, wearing K-Mart brand Fredrick’s of Hollywood nightgown with a lot of miles on it.” By virtue of the name, JOANNA, it’s apparent what sex this character is. If, however, you character named PAT or any name which could be applied to either sex, you will need to specify. “PAT, coed in her late teens, dressed for a day of shopping and competing for attention at the mall…”

For prose you can do a great deal more.

Remember characters all wear masks to conceal who they really are. These masks are not the characters as the truly are but these faces are that:

(a) what they want the world to believe about them,

(b) what they believe about themselves, or

(c) what they may honestly think they are.

It is only under pressure, in the heat of conflict, that a character will drop his/her mask and truly reveal himself to be who and what he really is. It is your job as the writer to put your characters into conflict and to continue to ratchet up the pressure on them until they reach a breaking point and have to finally come out from behind their masks and declare, through their actions, not just their words, who they really are.

What causes conflict? According to Abraham Maslow there exists a hierarchy of human needs which drives our species. At the most basic level we compete to have our needs met whenever the resources are limited. Once the needs on one level are satisfied we are able to move to the next level and focus our attention on “higher” needs.

He defined these needs as:

1) Physiological: hunger, thirst, warmth, sex, bodily comforts, etc.

2) Safety/security: out of danger;

3) Belonging and Love: affiliate with others, being accepted;

4) Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

5) Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;

6) Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;

7) Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential;

8) Transcendence: to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

So, your miniature character descriptions could be something like, “a has-been hooker still trying to kick her old lifestyle”…. or “not half as cool as he thinks he is”….or, “evil and making no attempt to hide it”….or, “looking for love under every slimy, abusive partner she can find.”

In prose, minor character can still be made more than cardbord with a little description like —“skinny black cop” or “sloppy businessman in a soiled shirt” or “artificially red haired old lady navagating in a walker.”

  1. And lastly, it is always best to make your character introduction part of the action no matter whether you’re writing prose or scripts. In other words, have the character doing something, almost anything visual — even if it’s snoring in a drunken stupor. Just remember, if the story is stopping for description, the reader is having to stop, too. Not something you want for either script or prose.


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