Friday, August 24, 2012

“Hello, my name is…”

In response to my last post, C.S. Wyatt asked if I would address introducing characters. He noted how many scripts he sees that force name and expository character information into dialogue in a painfully fake way. (This is a little different topic than the one I wrote about way back in 2009, which was more about how to introduce your character with oomph – though they are related.)

Let’s start with how we let the audience know the character’s name. The first question I would ask is, “Is it really important that the audience know the character’s name?” Obviously there are some memorably named movie characters – Indiana Jones, “Bond, James Bond,” Luke Skywalker, etc.

But there are plenty of excellent movies where the character name doesn’t really seem to stick with us. I doubt most people could have named the characters in Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) or Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) or, for that matter, my own Sweet Home Alabama more than a couple hours after seeing the films. Since I’ve recently written a lot about it, many of you might be able to name the lead character in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), but I imagine most people just think of him as “Leonardo DiCaprio.” And none of these movies seems to have suffered from forgettable names.

That last example may give us a clue as to why. In a movie we have an actor’s face – whether famous or not – to help us identify who the character is. And, as you might already be thinking, this is a tool we don’t have in a script. But what we do have is the character’s name printed above each line of dialogue. In essence, that is our “actor.”

But just as casting directors think about casting actors who don’t look similar enough to be confused for each other, screenwriters really ought to choose distinctive names for their characters. I always make sure none of my main characters names start with the same letter, partly so Final Draft will auto-fill with a single keystroke, but also because it helps keep them distinct. I also try to vary the number of syllables in my main characters’ names and avoid rhyming. It’s much easier to keep Kevin, Joe and Alexander straight than Steve, Stan and Sam.

It also helps to use memorable names, though you do want to be careful not to fill up your script with oddball names that will start to come off as goofy. But it’s usually best to avoid common, ordinary names like Dave, Mike or Mary. If you do use them, give them to the minor characters. Or, if you want your main character to have a common, ordinary name, then surround him with characters with more unusual names.

Another way to help the audience remember the name is to use it in the title. People won’t likely forget who the main characters are in Thelma and Louise (written by Callie Khouri) or When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) Of course, this can lead to boring titles. Dave (written by Gary Ross) was a great name for the main character – an ordinary man who has to pretend to be the President – but as a title it really doesn’t grab you and make you want to know more.

But let’s get to the original question of how to reveal the name in the script. It is, of course, natural for people to introduce themselves when they meet. If you’re doing a kind of romantic comedy “meet-cute” then an introduction probably slides in easily. But introductions are inherently boring and you want to avoid having a big group of people meet up and introduce themselves. Just like when you meet a bunch of people at once in real life, the audience will never remember all the names anyway.

The best way to get out names and other basic character info (job, relationships to other characters, etc.) is to create situations where the information naturally comes up (see my post on Show, Don’t Tell).

There are several ways to do that. One is to have other characters talk about the character when they’re not around. This is one of the benefits of advertising the character before their appearance. In Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), several people talk about Rick who owns Rick’s American Bar (helpful to name the place after him). Customers ask employees where Rick is and if they can have a drink with Rick. Finally we cut to a hand signing a check “Rick” and then pan up to reveal our main character. I doubt the audience will forget his name!

Having other characters talk about the character is also a good way to get basic exposition out. By the time Rick appears in Casablanca, we know he’s American and that he runs a bar and that he never drinks with customers. You also need, of course, a character who doesn’t know the information. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine, making the suicidal uncle character a newly arrived member of this family unit allows the father to explain why the son has taken a vow of silence.

And creating a little conflict can motivate people to offer up information they wouldn’t normally say. I often reference the introductions of Joe and Jerry in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan). They debate what they should do with their first paycheck – get Jerry’s tooth fixed, bet it on a dog, or pay off their many debts. Creating this argument gives them a reason to bring up how broke they are. Since both of them know this fact, it would be clunky if they just said something like, “Boy, we sure have a lot of debts.”

Introducing basic character information is a combination of exposition, dialogue and dramatization. It can be a big stumbling block for inexperienced writers. Make sure you create a plausible situation for the information to come out, and do your best to show rather than tell.

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