I’m never quite sure what to do with minor characters. Or rather, I know what to do with them, but not what to call them.
Conventional wisdom is to just call them Thug #1 or Florist #17 (which is a lot of florists). The problem with conventional wisdom is not everyone agrees and, frankly, I’m one of them. Keeping track of three or four Thugs in an action sequence is really difficult. Okay, so they don’t all have to talk and you can sometimes get away with:
Bob shoots three THUGS in the head. *
But what about when you have six thugs who split into teams of two? What if you have three heroes running around dealing with them on different floors of the same building? And then the Thug-teams meet back up and join together?
Sure, you can still call them THUG(S) #1 – 6 but it’s a bit of a dull read.
Wiser conventional wisdom says give them all an adjective as a name: SKINNY THUG, FAT THUG, STUPID THUG, TRANSVESTITE THUG … and so on.
That works well … except when it doesn’t.
Some scripts have lots of Vox Pops from one-line characters. Or have the protagonist meeting small groups of near-identical speaking characters at regular intervals like TAKEN, for example. I’ve not made the slightest effort to find the script for TAKEN, but I can imagine running out of adjectives towards the end of the script CREPUSCULAR BADDIE, HOMOGENEOUS BADDIE, TUTU-WEARING BADDIE …
Similarly, listing them up to BADDIE #113 would be quite wearing.
Then you get the producers (usually the micro-budget ones) who want all the characters to have names, citing the logic that it’s easier to get a slightly better actor to agree to a low-paid cameo if they’re playing CAESAR BING as opposed to FACELESS NOBODY #7.
This is an opinion which varies from production to production and while I don’t think it’s terrible advice, some producers think it’s nonsense and just panic when they generate a cast list and see forty-odd named characters.
Personally, I think it’s best not to do this until you know that’s what this particular producer wants. Especially if you have a lot of people getting beaten up or shouting during the first few pages – it’s just confusing and scares readers who don’t know which names they have to remember. I’d rather only the major characters were named in the first ten pages or so, but that might just be me.
When a producer does insist every character is named, then I find I still have the issue of keeping track of who’s who. SEBASTIAN on page 93 – did we meet him on page 4? No, that CASPIAN. Or was it a talking SEABASS? Oh look, I’ve lost interest.
Was GERALD one of the biker gang or one of the scientists? They’ve been arguing for several scenes now and I’m beginning to lose the will to care.
Sometimes I experiment with different naming systems. If someone gets into trouble with a small gang of ROWDY YOUTHS … I might give them names which belong together, like FANCY, SPOOK, CHOO-CHOO, BENNY and BRAIN. Or HERCULES, SHIRO and LEE. Or SCOTT, ALAN, VIRGIL, GORDON and … um … BRIAN? WAYNE? MAYNARD? Fuck, can’t remember. Oh dear.
Point is, these names only belong together if you’re of a certain age and wasted too many Saturday mornings in front of the telly.
LAUREL and HARDY might be good names for two bumbling security guards … unless the reader is in their early twenties and has no idea who Laurel and Hardy were.
“Oh, those two guys from that black and white poster?”
Fucking criminal, I know – but nobody’s famous forever.
Other times I’ve tried giving a group of DISPOSABLE MERCENARIES colours for names: RED, YELLOW, GREEN, BLUE … That seemed to work quite well during a particularly convoluted fight scene.
Very recently, I had a multitude of characters commenting on the action to camera, like an expanded Internet-based Greek chorus. We occasionally came back to the same person, but the number of them keeps growing. I tried calling them by their job title – but most of them weren’t in situations where their job was easily recognisable from their clothes/backgrounds – unlike, say, PARAMEDIC or NAZI.
So I tried giving all the characters an adjective-based name … but that wasn’t really working either because there were too many of them.
Then, after a dressing down from a frustrated producer on a different project who thought “giving all of the minor characters proper names is just standard and why the fuck aren’t you doing it?”, I panicked and rewrote every script I was working on … but this one just didn’t lend itself to that kind of thing. If you call the Paramedic STEVE, then you have to include an action line explaining he’s a paramedic, whereas a PARAMEDIC can just start talking.
Then I had a brain wave – why not give every character an alliterative name? NURSE NERYS, DOCTOR DAN, RENE THE RETRO-PHRENOLOGIST?
Yes! This was genius! Why hadn’t I thought of this before?
Because it’s fucking stupid, that’s why.
Never, ever do this.
Unless you want to. Because, obviously, rule number one is never, ever take advice from me.
I still haven’t found a solution I’m happy with. Or perhaps I just still haven’t found a solution which works every time. I’m searching for the Grand Unified Theory of Minor Character Naming … but perhaps there isn’t one?
Perhaps it’s something I should just review on a script by script basis?
Or perhaps I’m just writing this because I’m avoiding writing something useful and feel better knowing you’ve just wasted a significant chunk of your day too?
Yes, that sounds more likely.
* With one bullet? Or one after the other with three bullets? This is a terrible action line. Never put this line in a script.