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And they just keep coming: yet another amazingly interesting topic that has risen from doing this screenwriting course. And of course this was already present during the reading of the 20+ scripts, but never in such an active mode. Now that we are faced with putting it into practice ourselves, it really begs to understand the why of it: the introduction of your characters and specifically when to ‘formally’ introduce them, with their names.
I know the character Mike Wazowski of Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001) wasn’t the first one to say the phrase ‘once you name it, you start getting attached to it’, but I did have to think of him as he said this to Sullivan aka Sulley, who had just given the little human girl, who escaped her room, a name. Boo. Until then, she was known as ‘little girl’ in the script. From page 32 to page 60 in the screenplay, she is referred as such. On page 60 Sulley reveals he has given her a ‘real’ name, since she doesn’t really talk much herself yet. That’s almost 30 pages. In theory, about half an hour in the movie (thinking of the usual 1:1 ratio, script vs. screen). That’s a long time for a character to go without an official name. Had she been able to already talk, surely she would’ve had a name in the script by now. But that is not the case, so until then, she is referred to as ‘little girl’. Yet in this case, there is a special reason why it’s actually not that bad, which I will explain a little later.
Now why is it important for a character to have an actual name? It’s obvious. Because as a reader, you will then get attached to it, remember this character. And with this immediately comes a very important, perhaps the most important point I discovered. That there is a big difference between the importance of knowing someone’s name in the screenplay and knowing someone’s name in the movie.
As many of us students have embarked on this reverse screenwriting part of the journey, this topic came up through a question in the group by one of the students. Because in the movie that this student was transcribing, the name of one of the characters was still not said out loud 30 minutes into the movie, even though she had been on screen for quite a few times already and seemed to have a distinctive role, a character that the main character interacts with. And because he seemed under the impression that as long as a character’s name isn’t said out loud yet on screen, or visible on a name tag or whatever, the name should also not be revealed in the screenplay yet. So, he had not. But began to doubt whether that was correct. Although I knew that wasn’t right, it did get me digging and figuring out what I believed myself to be a right way to do it, from all the scripts I read so far and what I could find online about it. And lo and behold, what I had come to believe was indeed close to what experts say about it. But they also offered some extra insight, which then helped me to really internalize it. I always believe that learning why something is the way it is or should be, hooks it in your brain better, because you know the story of it, the reason. A proven educational method.
What I didn’t expect to discover, was a major, and I mean MAJOR difference between the screenplay and onscreen. What one of the articles described, I think it was an excerpt from David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, is that in a script, on paper, the reader will indeed get attached to a character with a name. And when a character is referred to as simply ‘woman’ or ‘waiter’ or ‘guard #1’, it becomes clear to the reader that this is not someone to remember or get attached to. Why else not give them a name if they are important? It will get quite difficult to remember a character when they keep being referred to as ‘woman’ throughout the script. “Who was this again?”, you will wonder, and “why is their name still not revealed?” (there is an small exception to this, which I will come to later as well). So, giving a character a name in the story as soon as possible makes sense, if you want the reader to remember this character. After all, your goal is to let the reader get attached to an important character as soon as possible. You want the reader to want to follow this character and all his/her endeavours, from the very start. However, and here comes the big difference with the screen, on screen the audience doesn’t need to know someone’s name specifically to start bonding. On screen what matters and creates an attachment is exposure to the character. The more and longer we are exposed to a character on screen, the more we will get attached to it, for one. But also realize that this character must matter in the story. Why else would the writer, director give this character so much screen-time? Having someone say a character’s name or placing a name tag somewhere, simply to inform the audience of their name and no other reason, so by force, gives me the chills, and not in a good way. And will be perceived as force, as ‘must inform the audience of their name or else there will be trouble’. Of course, it is nice when we know their name eventually, but by no means should you try to wriggle yourself every which way, out of fear that the audience won’t attach itself to your characters, simply because they don’t know their names yet. So that idea is definitely out the door for me. I do not believe that you have to have their names either said out loud or written on a name tag or whatever from the get-go, so the audience will hear or read it on screen, to validate their introduction with their name to the reader on paper. Bonding with a character on paper happens through naming it, bonding with a character on screen happens by exposure. As is in a book versus a movie. Although meant for the screen, a screenplay is still a story written on paper and has to be read. We bond differently with characters on paper than we do on screen. It is a given.
When we now go back to the example of Monsters, Inc. (2001), the initial naming of Boo’s character as ‘little girl’ in the screenplay, actually did not form a confusion or lack of attachment to the reader. Why? Because she was the only little girl in the monster world. Every other character in the monster world, even unimportant ones, have different references in the script. You could even say that ‘little girl’ was a real name for the reader, as it is a reference for a human being, the only human being in the monster world. The reader knows this clearly is a character that won’t disappear very quickly, since humans are the monsters’ biggest fear, established from the start and no other characters are referred to as ‘girl’, so the reader knows to remember her. Only at the beginning, there is one reference to a ‘little boy’ in a scene giving us a clear exposition of the world in which this story takes place and the relationship the monsters have with humans. The little boy quickly turns out to be a robotic boy, within half a page, used for training new recruits. So, ‘little girl’ was different enough for the reader to distinguish. And on screen we bonded with her the minute she lifted up Sulley’s tail and drops it, and we don’t know her name. And she won’t have a real name for over a whopping 30 pages, ok, 28 pages. In fact we never officially will know it, only what Sulley decides to call her after spending a considerable amount of time with her, in which he too started to bond with her, hence giving her a name. I’m just realizing now, as I am writing this, that this could be the best supporting argument for not having to know a character’s name on screen to bond with them.
Now, when we introduce an important character in the screenplay, how much do we then reveal in the character description, especially regarding characterization? The audience won’t know all from the start, so should the reader? And shouldn’t much of who he or she is be revealed through dialogue and interactions with others and their surroundings? Should you not also keep the reader in some kind of suspense of who they are, until this too is revealed to them through the actions and dialogue? Or is the description from the start also a guide for the actors? So they will know how to play that part. Who that character really is? You would suspect that the actors have read the entire screenplay and will have figured out who their character is by the end, if you’ve done your job right as the screenwriter and have revealed this through their actions and the dialogue. And not by the description of their character, at their ‘formal’ introduction in the beginning. That would feel like cheating somehow. The ‘rule’ is that you shouldn’t write anything in the screenplay that you cannot see on screen or displayed or acted out on screen. This usually refers to the actions and location descriptions, but should it also not apply to the character description, of their characterization at least? Won’t that give so much away already if you do describe that right away, which will only become visible for the audience as the story progresses? As I continue in my reverse screenwriting, and have given the main characters a description, I am beginning to think I actually have revealed too much and will go back to edit that when I am done with the first draft, I should have enough time left for the deadline. It will be interesting to see how the writers did it and whether I will be right to remove some of the characterization description.
Going back to the topic of revealing the name of your character in the screenplay as soon as possible, there is of course one good reason to delay their ‘official’ introduction on paper. And that is suspense. But with that you have to ask yourself this question: up to which point in the story is it important to conceal the character’s identity from the reader (and thus the audience)? And next to that question: up to which point in the story can I conceal this character’s identity, if it has a function, before the reader will lose his interest in this character and forget who he or she is, what they have read so far in the script. I think one way to avoid that, would be to give the character an appropriate anonymous name. So, instead of just ‘man’ or ‘woman’, something like ‘mysterious man’ or ‘tall woman’ or something. At least then the reader will get a hunch that this isn’t really a nameless character who he should forget. And when a character’s identity remains unknown for the reader, for the sake of suspense, that will have to become clear on screen as well for the audience. It won’t be someone in plain sight, who has been conversing with a main character a lot already. No, this should be someone that also looks conspicuous on screen, visually. Shown in half shadows or something or quickly hiding or running away. Or deliberately not being introduced, when asked. That is what I think.
If you think I have this topic all figured out now, you are unfortunately mistaken. I know nothing! Ok, not nothing. I know a lot more than I did a few months ago, but this topic is not set in stone, nor will it ever be. I think it is good to understand the reasons of the introductions and the reveal or withholding of a character’s name. I think those have become clear, at least to me. And I will continue to learn more about this, as I will read even more screenplays in the future and see their examples and of course also by putting it into practice myself. In this phase of the course and the next, and beyond! Another great lesson on this journey.