On character introductions: patterns

So, it looks like a second season of Bridgerton is on its way to Netflix; or it might already be there depending on how long it takes me to write this. I remember watching the first season and enjoying it well enough. I know it has its issues and its critics, but for the most part, the only thing I’m really interested in talking about is the technical side of introducing and identifying characters — as you might have guessed from the title above.

It took me four episodes — half the whole season — to finally be able to tell all three of the older Bridgerton brothers apart by sight alone.

But aside from this, the story does do one thing very, very right: it sets up a framework or mnemonic for identifying characters.

It does this by explicitly pointing out very early on that the Bridgerton kids are named alphabetically. Establishing such a pattern gives one an idea of what to expect, a mnemonic or framework on which to build one’s mental picture of the cast. When one tall, dark-haired gentleman is addressed as “Colin”, you’re not left thinking, “wait, I thought his name was Benedict?” You know that this is another brother, and you know how he fits into the family because of the naming system. Even if you forget all their actual names, you still have an idea of who and how many. In a way, the mnemonic does the work of establishing a “placeholder personality” for characters that the story may not have time to explore just this moment, something just distinct enough to keep the characters separate without overloading the reader/viewer with information that has yet to be relevant.

I think that my confusion over the Bridgerton brothers was partly because our first meeting with Colin and Benedict did not imbue either of them with any distinguishing characteristics. We had a bit of banter about which one was better liked, but in the end the only box the conversation actually checked was the “assign names to faces” box. Compare this with our meeting with Thomas and William in Downton Abbey: “You’re late when I say you’re late,” says Thomas, establishing him as a bit of a prick, and that bears out in the ensuing series. Or compare with Hill House, which spends enough time on the introduction of each adult Crain sister so that our familiarity with each one can overcome the general similarity of their appearance. We get neither with Colin and Benedict. The issue of likeability never becomes a distinctive plot point or memorable character trait. The framework establishes a helpful baseline, but no more than that: character recognition needs more than that for success.

This trick of establishing a framework need not be limited to names. If you were told that, say, there existed a circle of enchanters in which each member personified a different month, you’d know to look out for “January” or “August” even if those were not their names. You’d even have an idea of what they’d be like, based on the aspects associated with their associated months.

On a mostly unrelated note, I’d like to say a word about the racial casting of the show. Some on the left have criticised this as “race-baiting”, while some on the right have criticised this as “forced diversity”. Most, I suspect, don’t care. But I have, perhaps, a more pragmatic, perhaps even cynical, take on it: I appreciated the racial casting because it made Simon visually distinct. Similarly, casting a black actress as Marina Thompson meant she stood out from the Featherington girls with whom she was staying, much as “Marina” would stand out from “Prudence, Phillipa, and Penelope” in text. If patterns — frameworks, mnemonics — help people keep your ensemble casts properly ordered in their heads, breaking the pattern provides added contrast to make a character stand out.

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