On character introductions

One thing I find fascinating in TV shows and movies is the way in which characters are introduced, especially when ensemble casts are involved. This started back when I got the first development edits for A Gentleman’s Murder and I was told, “You have five white men of similar social status, age, and background, and I’m having trouble telling them apart.” Well, of course I did my best to fix it, and I don’t know if I’ve been perfectly successful (perhaps a “perfect success” does not exist) but I think I’ve learnt a trick or two in the meantime.

If you want a master class on character introduction, I think that has to be the first episode of Downton Abbey. Here we have a massive cast of characters, many of them in similar roles, and yet we end the hour with a fairly good idea of who’s who. How was it done? Observe:

  1. We have two housemaids, Gwen and Anna. They are first seen together even though we don’t learn their names right away. We identify them first by sight.
  2. Two footmen are introduced together: while we see Thomas alone at first, William’s first appearance is an interaction with Thomas.
  3. When we first see Mary, she’s alone; we learn her name when the servants respond to her bell. The next time we see her, she’s accompanied by her sisters, Edith and Sybil, though we don’t learn their names immediately.

The trick, I think, is to introduce similar characters together.

Refining the idea a little: You can do what you like with the first member of the group, but our first sighting of any subsequent members of that same group should ideally be in the presence of that first member. This allows the audience to focus on the things that distinguish the members from each other and remember them by those characteristics. When we first meet Thomas, we remember him as “the footman”. Then, when we see William next to Thomas, we remember William as “the other footman, who is not Thomas” and we immediately begin to pick out the ways in which he is different from Thomas. Had William been introduced without Thomas in view, we might identify William also as “the footman” and then begin to confuse the two characters with each other.

Now, another show I’ve recently watched is the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House. It is a show so brilliant that, after finishing it, I began looking up reaction videos to watch other people watching it. But one thing I’ve noticed from watching these reactions is that most people spend half the first episode thinking the Crain family has only two daughters, not three. They don’t know who Theo is until they see her sitting with Shirley on the porch and the conversation clues them in that Theo is a third sister.

Why is this? If we look back at the prologue, we find that we actually do meet all five of the Crain siblings right there: Steve emerges from his room when he hears crying and meets Theo in the corridor; he tells Theo to go back to bed, then goes into Luke and Nellie’s room to comfort them. Hugh, their father, walks in, offers his own comforting reassurance, then leaves; he looks into Shirley’s room and hears her talking in her sleep; finally, Hugh gets into bed with Olivia, tells her what happened, and the scene ends. This is, in many respects, an excellent scene for introducing the Crains, but it makes one small slip in introducing Theo and Shirley so far apart from each other. Nellie is distinct from her sisters by virtue of her connection with Luke, but at this point, Theo and Shirley are too similar to each other. Most people either don’t realise that the girl Steve meets in the corridor is not the same girl that Hugh looks in on afterwards, or they forget that Steve even met Theo in the corridor at all.

Hill House gets away with this because of how well people enjoy the rest of it; because the confusion is cleared up before it can get intrusive, and then it is quickly forgotten; and because, compared to Downton Abbey, its cast of characters is tiny. The same confusion applied to a cast of Downton Abbey‘s size would assuredly not be cleared up by the middle of the first episode!

So now, the big question is, how does this translate into the written word? Because text works very differently from the screen: names take the place of faces, and things that can be conveyed all at once with a single shot on screen must be laboriously described in text. On the other hand, ideas and concepts that can be expressed in text with a single sentence may require some awkward framing and storytelling to express on screen.

I don’t claim to have all the answers or to have everything already figured out. I’m still learning as I go. But one thing I tried to do with A Gentleman’s Murder was to impress on the reader, when I introduced the first of the five club officers, that this man was one of a group of five. The idea of being “one of five” was repeated at least once more, and when I introduced the fifth and last of those men, I made sure to list off the other four names as well. Saying that a character was “one of this group of five” was my attempt at the textual equivalent of seeing the three Crawley sisters all together at once, without actually having them share the scene — and that’s something you can do in text that you can’t do on screen: you can have your characters together on the page despite them not actually being in the same physical place in the story.

Was I successful? Well, like I said in the beginning, I don’t know if such a thing as a “perfect success” exists. But I do think it helped, and that’s better than nothing.

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