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Author Topic: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters  (Read 1087 times)  

Offline Jena H

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Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« on: March 18, 2017, 12:59:22 PM »
In my WIP, my teenaged main characters are on a college campus, where they naturally see a lot of people not much older than themselves (most of the college students are male, which fits with the time/location of the story).  The MCs speak to a number of the people they run across, people who are only in a brief scene; in a TV show they'd be credited as Man with Umbrella or Store Clerk, etc.   Anyway, I'm finding it difficult to describe these non-characters, especially when my MCs do interact with them.  So far I've made use of "the young man said...." or "she smiled at the student...."  (And most of them are students, and male, so that limits the repertoire, unfortunately.)

Obviously I can't refer to these peripheral characters in the narrative as kids or guys, and they're not all teens, so I can't really use that either.  Similarly, it seems misleading to call them men, since that suggests someone a little older than 21 or so.  But I've used "young man" and "student" too often and I need to find other ways of referring to them.

Anyone else ever have this issue?  I try to be as creative as possible and even try to rewrite scenes to cut down on having to refer to these peripheral, minor 'characters' if I can.
Jena

Offline valeriec80

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #1 on: March 18, 2017, 01:05:59 PM »
When I'm writing fight scenes with unnamed cronies, I'll describe them in one sentence, like, "The first one had a blue shirt," and from then on will refer to him as "Blue Shirt," as in, "Blue Shirt aimed a roundhouse kick at Lisa's head."

Don't know if that's a possible solution for you or not. :)

As for repeating young man or student, I wouldn't worry about it for the sake of repetition. Repetition is probably not a big deal. But for clarity, if you've got more than one student in the scene, you would need to find a way to demarcate them.
   

Offline Jena H

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #2 on: March 18, 2017, 01:31:53 PM »
When I'm writing fight scenes with unnamed cronies, I'll describe them in one sentence, like, "The first one had a blue shirt," and from then on will refer to him as "Blue Shirt," as in, "Blue Shirt aimed a roundhouse kick at Lisa's head."

Don't know if that's a possible solution for you or not. :)

As for repeating young man or student, I wouldn't worry about it for the sake of repetition. Repetition is probably not a big deal. But for clarity, if you've got more than one student in the scene, you would need to find a way to demarcate them.

Yes, that's always a good thing to do, using visual clues to identify people.  Patricia Veryan did the same thing, and like you, she did it in fight scenes, so it definitely works.   ;)

Unfortunately my Peripherals are encountered one at a time (so far, at least), so I can't really differentiate them by clothing or physical characteristic.  Maybe this won't be as big an issue as I think when I'm totally finished and read the whole thing at once on first edit.  But as I write, it seems as if I use the same words/phrases a little too often.  (But then, as writers, we can be very paranoid aware of our word choices.)   8)
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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #3 on: March 18, 2017, 01:38:00 PM »
If characters don't have a story related role, and are simply background, why are they there?

If characters can be cut without impairing story advancement, cut them.

Don't clutter a story with non-essential entities.

Offline dianapersaud

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #4 on: March 18, 2017, 03:28:38 PM »
If characters don't have a story related role, and are simply background, why are they there?

If characters can be cut without impairing story advancement, cut them.

Don't clutter a story with non-essential entities.

This^.  Cut or merge them into a few recurring characters. They are on a college campus. They probably see the SAME people all throughout the day. In the same classes, in the same dorm. At cafeteria duty.

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Offline Jena H

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #5 on: March 18, 2017, 03:32:44 PM »
If characters don't have a story related role, and are simply background, why are they there?

If characters can be cut without impairing story advancement, cut them.

Don't clutter a story with non-essential entities.

This^.  Cut or merge them into a few recurring characters. They are on a college campus. They probably see the SAME people all throughout the day. In the same classes, in the same dorm. At cafeteria duty.

The main characters (who are only visitors on campus) do interact with these 'peripheral' people, so they do serve a minor purpose, whether it's in answering questions or something else.  In one scene, the MC accidentally bumps into a college student, and they speak to each other briefly.  That person won't be seen again, but the brief interchange does spur particular thoughts/conversation for the two MCs.  I guess these non-essential characters provide contrast for the MCs re their world view vs. the world view of the students.
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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #6 on: March 18, 2017, 03:41:56 PM »

  Give each of these walk-in characters one unique attribute that will differentiate them from anyone else. Make it something your main character would notice right away and would remember, then describe them using that attribute.

 Like one guy has longer hair than is normal. One guy has a lisp or stutters. One guy is a giant, one guy is a little person. One guy is in a wheelchair or is on crutches. One guy could have long bangs that he keeps blowing on, or is wearing sunglasses indoors. You probably get the idea. :)

Offline kathrynoh

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #7 on: March 18, 2017, 04:54:46 PM »
When I'm writing fight scenes with unnamed cronies, I'll describe them in one sentence, like, "The first one had a blue shirt," and from then on will refer to him as "Blue Shirt," as in, "Blue Shirt aimed a roundhouse kick at Lisa's head."


I've just been writing a scene with Red Shirt and Blue Shirt :)

The other alternative, depending on the tone of the book is to make a thing of the MCs not differentiating between the students. Eg. "Was that the same student?" "Who knows? They all look the same." kind of thing

Offline she-la-ti-da

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #8 on: March 18, 2017, 04:56:31 PM »
If characters don't have a story related role, and are simply background, why are they there?

If characters can be cut without impairing story advancement, cut them.

Don't clutter a story with non-essential entities.

This. I was wondering why there was a need for so many "extras". If essential information must be received in this way, try to combine characters, or have the data obtained in another way.
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Offline PaulineMRoss

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #9 on: March 18, 2017, 05:14:45 PM »
This. I was wondering why there was a need for so many "extras". If essential information must be received in this way, try to combine characters, or have the data obtained in another way.

Character interactions are not just about information, they're also background colour (or world-building, in my genre). Having a lot of largely anonymous, unnamed characters on campus conveys something of the crowded bustle of college life, and (maybe) the loneliness of not knowing many people. An author can convey something interesting about a character if someone they see every day still doesn't have a name, and indicate a change by the character finally finding out the name of that barista or security guy. Names are important, and so is the lack of a name.
   

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Offline Jena H

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #10 on: March 18, 2017, 06:03:30 PM »
Character interactions are not just about information, they're also background colour (or world-building, in my genre). Having a lot of largely anonymous, unnamed characters on campus conveys something of the crowded bustle of college life, and (maybe) the loneliness of not knowing many people. An author can convey something interesting about a character if someone they see every day still doesn't have a name, and indicate a change by the character finally finding out the name of that barista or security guy. Names are important, and so is the lack of a name.

^^ This, and thanks.  If a character has to, say, ask for directions, we don't need to know the name and backstory of the person who helps him out, but the directions can (both literally and figuratively) get the MC pointed to the right path.  If all books got rid of every "character" who is simply in the background, and doesn't have a "story-related role," then most books would become pretty dull and colorless, imho.
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Offline jmb3

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #11 on: March 18, 2017, 06:35:55 PM »
One of my boys is home on spring break. I just asked him how guys refer to each other when running into one another on campus. He's a So Cal boy (but goes to school in Texas) so this may not apply everywhere but guys his age (he's twenty) refer to each other as 'dude' or 'bro' and say things like 'hey man' when meeting an acquaintance. They also will often add a 'y' to the end of their friends' names or refer to each other by their last names or a variation of their last name. For example, our last name is Bengtsson and his friends often refer to him as 'Banks' or they'll tease him by calling him, 'Bangs-a-ton'.

And guys that age probably wouldn't notice clothing (unless the person they were meeting was showing off a body part that caught their attention). You'd be better off referring to something on their face or body. Like the guy with a ripe zit on his face or the dude with the chipped tooth. And I agree with others. After you establish that the dude has a chipped tooth then afterward you can just call him 'chip tooth.'

« Last Edit: March 18, 2017, 07:13:06 PM by jmb3 »

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Offline Jena H

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #12 on: March 18, 2017, 08:10:59 PM »
One of my boys is home on spring break. I just asked him how guys refer to each other when running into one another on campus. He's a So Cal boy (but goes to school in Texas) so this may not apply everywhere but guys his age (he's twenty) refer to each other as 'dude' or 'bro' and say things like 'hey man' when meeting an acquaintance. They also will often add a 'y' to the end of their friends' names or refer to each other by their last names or a variation of their last name. For example, our last name is Bengtsson and his friends often refer to him as 'Banks' or they'll tease him by calling him, 'Bangs-a-ton'.

And guys that age probably wouldn't notice clothing (unless the person they were meeting was showing off a body part that caught their attention). You'd be better off referring to something on their face or body. Like the guy with a ripe zit on his face or the dude with the chipped tooth. And I agree with others. After you establish that the dude has a chipped tooth then afterward you can just call him 'chip tooth.'

Lol at "Bangs-a-ton."  Interesting that your college-student son would tell a parent that he's called that.   8)

I do have a "dude" and "bro" in the dialogue, although in the context of the book it's not really appropriate jargon.  Also, I'm not worried so much about dialogue, but about the objective narrative in describing the scene.  That's another reason I probably can't use descriptors as some have mentioned--in a scene with only two people I can't really write "Mary laughed at Blue Shirt's comment."  (Actually, I probably could, and I have done that very thing in another series, but in this particular book it doesn't seem to fit as I'm trying not to spend too much time in one MC's head.)
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Offline RandomThings

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #13 on: March 19, 2017, 03:46:05 AM »
Your character could be polite and ask them their names before getting whatever information they need, or just provide a brief description of each. They can then become, the girl with the weird hair, nose ring or noticeable head lice. The boy with the limp, the buck teeth or the ridiculously expensive glasses that looked out of place on someone who wore jeans that were full of holes...

If they are background characters and serve little point but to provide direction to the MC, a simple one or two sentence description noting some characteristic that can be referred to later would be suitable.

Offline Patrick Urban

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #14 on: March 19, 2017, 11:46:25 AM »
Character interactions are not just about information, they're also background colour (or world-building, in my genre). Having a lot of largely anonymous, unnamed characters on campus conveys something of the crowded bustle of college life, and (maybe) the loneliness of not knowing many people. An author can convey something interesting about a character if someone they see every day still doesn't have a name, and indicate a change by the character finally finding out the name of that barista or security guy. Names are important, and so is the lack of a name.

This.
... unless you're writing a story about a misanthropic hermit or a dystopian post-apocalypse  ;) tic
You lose immersion, verisimilitude, opportunities for character illustration and more if you strip/tunnel-vision for the sake of ease -- unless, of course, the story itself calls for and is served by the approach.

A lot of good suggestions in the thread on how to include without tripping up the reader or redirecting focus.

Offline P.J. Post

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #15 on: March 19, 2017, 12:28:12 PM »
Use your MC's pov...think about them, who are they? Really? What's important to them? It directs how people greet one another, what they remember and how they take note of things - what's important to them. Someone who's committed to body building will probably have a different perception of life than a "save the whales" oceanography major. For example: oh, he was wearing those new Air Jordans; she had that cool Coach bag I've been hoping will show up at the outlet store; I've seen her around, looks like she finally dyed her hair blue; Jesus, that dude's never sober after eleven o'clock; woah, I heard Eddie got his nose broke in the Bride's mosh pit, it looks a lot worse than I thought it would.

It's okay to use casual names, too, people know of other people, even if they don't know them well.

So, in the examples above you have: sneaker guy, Coach girl, alterna-girl, coma boy and wimpy, or Eddie. However, you shouldn't really need to name or even refer to side characters very often after the initial description, the reader will know who's who by the nature of the discussion.

But the big thing, as has been suggested, you don't need lots of interaction to illustrate a crowded campus, or a popular MC, and dialogue should develop character or further plot, otherwise it's a waste of time - cut it. Consolidate characters and have a reason as to who the MC meets, what they say, the kind of person they are and the order the MC meets them in. This is a perfect opportunity for foreshadowing, metaphor and the introduction of sub-text. It also addresses pacing in the narrative, leading the reader along, directing their emotions.

ETA: Sometimes dialogue can address setting as well, but it's rare that it does so in a vacuum. Good dialog is usually doing at least double-duty, in terms of the narrative.
« Last Edit: March 19, 2017, 12:31:25 PM by P.J. Post »

Offline Jena H

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #16 on: March 19, 2017, 01:34:20 PM »
Use your MC's pov...think about them, who are they? Really? What's important to them? It directs how people greet one another, what they remember and how they take note of things - what's important to them. Someone who's committed to body building will probably have a different perception of life than a "save the whales" oceanography major. For example: oh, he was wearing those new Air Jordans; she had that cool Coach bag I've been hoping will show up at the outlet store; I've seen her around, looks like she finally dyed her hair blue; Jesus, that dude's never sober after eleven o'clock; woah, I heard Eddie got his nose broke in the Bride's mosh pit, it looks a lot worse than I thought it would.

It's okay to use casual names, too, people know of other people, even if they don't know them well.

So, in the examples above you have: sneaker guy, Coach girl, alterna-girl, coma boy and wimpy, or Eddie. However, you shouldn't really need to name or even refer to side characters very often after the initial description, the reader will know who's who by the nature of the discussion.

But the big thing, as has been suggested, you don't need lots of interaction to illustrate a crowded campus, or a popular MC, and dialogue should develop character or further plot, otherwise it's a waste of time - cut it. Consolidate characters and have a reason as to who the MC meets, what they say, the kind of person they are and the order the MC meets them in. This is a perfect opportunity for foreshadowing, metaphor and the introduction of sub-text. It also addresses pacing in the narrative, leading the reader along, directing their emotions.

ETA: Sometimes dialogue can address setting as well, but it's rare that it does so in a vacuum. Good dialog is usually doing at least double-duty, in terms of the narrative.

Thanks to everyone for responding.  In my previous books in this series (they all have the same two MCs) I did have scenes from the POV of one of the MCs or the other.  In this book I'm trying to limit the "head-hopping," though.


Here's an example, in which both MCs are present (not the actual dialogue).

"I haven't even finished the class," Bill protested.
"So?"  The young man gestured to where the others were standing.  "A lot of guys left before they were finished."
Bill laughed.  "I understand.  But I think I can do it if given the opportunity."
"Assuming you can wait that long."  The college man looked at his watch. "I have to leave.  Next time, watch where you're going."

So in one short scene I've used both young man and college student/college man.  I guess I could be in the other MC's head and refer to him a "dorky-looking student," or "preppy Pete," etc., but I don't want to spend too much time in any particular person's POV if I can help it.
« Last Edit: March 19, 2017, 01:39:01 PM by Jena H »
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Offline P.J. Post

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #17 on: March 19, 2017, 06:28:08 PM »
Here's an example, in which both MCs are present (not the actual dialogue).

Quote
"I haven't even finished the class," Bill protested.
"So?"  The young man gestured to where the others were standing.  "A lot of guys left before they were finished."
Bill laughed.  "I understand.  But I think I can do it if given the opportunity."
"Assuming you can wait that long."  The college man looked at his watch. "I have to leave.  Next time, watch where you're going."

If the college kid is an MC, then he should get a name fairly quickly, otherwise, a lot of this depends on individual style and voice, but you can probably get by with a lot less dialogue tags, and then shifting the action/description beats around improves the flow:

Bill's pov:
Quote
Bill glanced over to where the others were standing, hands in pockets, glum faces studying the sidewalk, as if too ashamed to look each other in the eye. His laugh, little more than nerves, rings hollow. "I...I haven't even finished the class." 

"So? A lot of guys left before they were finished. You think they nailed it?"

"No, I get it. But I can do this, if given the opportunity, I know I can."

"Assuming you can wait that long."  He looked at his watch. "I have to leave.  Next time, watch where you're going."

or (different set up)

The other guy's pov:
Quote
He glanced across the quad, to where the students were leaving the auditorium, excited, slapping one another on the back, laughing and joking.

Bill's laugh sounded more like nerves. "I...I haven't even finished the class." 

"So? A lot of guys left before they were finished. You think they nailed it?"

"No, I get it. But I can do this, if given the opportunity, I know I can."

"Assuming you can wait that long."  He looked at his watch. "I have to leave.  Next time, watch where you're going."

ETA: Changed pov's.
« Last Edit: March 19, 2017, 06:32:20 PM by P.J. Post »

Offline Becca Mills

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #18 on: March 20, 2017, 12:08:35 AM »
If the college kid is an MC, then he should get a name fairly quickly, otherwise, a lot of this depends on individual style and voice, but you can probably get by with a lot less dialogue tags, and then shifting the action/description beats around improves the flow:

The other MC (who is not the college student) is standing there, and she could be responsible for some of the dialogue. I think that's why Jena's wanting to tag each line. How about:

"I haven't even finished the class," Bill protested.
"So?" The young man gestured to where the others were standing. "A lot of guys left before they were finished."
"I understand. But I think I can do it if given the opportunity."
"Assuming you can wait that long, bro. Hey, I have to go. Watch where you're going next time."

Sticking "bro" in masculinizes the last line of dialogue so that you don't have to attribute it to the male student explicitly. Readers will assume the female MC doesn't call Bill "bro." Little workarounds like that should enable you to avoid tagging every line. Another option is to give students labels according to their function. Maybe the guy who leaves class earlier becomes "the slacker," whereas someone who helps them find a building becomes "their impromptu tour guide" and someone who's got a whole bunch of friends following her is "the leader of the pack" or "the social butterfly."

Offline David Brian

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #19 on: March 20, 2017, 04:31:28 AM »
I've just been writing a scene with Red Shirt and Blue Shirt :)



Did the Red Shirt die? :D


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Offline Bards and Sages (Julie)

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #20 on: March 20, 2017, 10:13:24 AM »
Give them names. They don't have to be "real" names, but the names your protagonist would use to identify them in the moment. I think we've all done it at some point. you are telling someone a story about your day and you have to reference people you don't know. Depending on your interaction with the person, you may use somewhat...colorful...names for the people.  :P

For example, my last trip to the grocery store featured Stalker Boy, The Blob, Madame Oblivious, her son Damien Hellspawn (and what I believe was his sister, Saytana), Slug, and Ms. Thang.

You can fill in the blanks as to the day I had at the grocery store. :o :o

If these interactions are important to the story, then make them important by adding personality to them.

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #21 on: March 20, 2017, 11:08:01 AM »
Give them names. They don't have to be "real" names, but the names your protagonist would use to identify them in the moment. I think we've all done it at some point. you are telling someone a story about your day and you have to reference people you don't know. Depending on your interaction with the person, you may use somewhat...colorful...names for the people.  :P

For example, my last trip to the grocery store featured Stalker Boy, The Blob, Madame Oblivious, her son Damien Hellspawn (and what I believe was his sister, Saytana), Slug, and Ms. Thang.

You can fill in the blanks as to the day I had at the grocery store. :o :o

If these interactions are important to the story, then make them important by adding personality to them.

Ditto this. My characters use nicknames to describe people they don't know all the time. The names they choose tell you something about them, too.
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Offline brkingsolver

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #22 on: March 20, 2017, 01:30:41 PM »
"Are we lost?"
"Probably. Ask that guy with the big nose for directions."
"What he said doesn't make sense. The girl in the coffee shop described it totally different."
"Which one? The blonde or the one wearing the torn shirt?"
"It doesn't matter. As long as we don't have to deal with that stinky guy again."
"You seemed to like his girlfriend."
"I just thought her blue hair was unusual."

People are all different, and we notice different things about them. Otherwise, you can just call them Red Shirt 1, Red Shirt 2, Red Shirt 3... like in Star Trek.

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Re: Referencing unnamed, non-essential characters
« Reply #23 on: March 20, 2017, 06:34:25 PM »
  Give each of these walk-in characters one unique attribute that will differentiate them from anyone else. Make it something your main character would notice right away and would remember, then describe them using that attribute.

 Like one guy has longer hair than is normal. One guy has a lisp or stutters. One guy is a giant, one guy is a little person. One guy is in a wheelchair or is on crutches. One guy could have long bangs that he keeps blowing on, or is wearing sunglasses indoors. You probably get the idea. :)

Yes. The viewpoint character determines how to tag the un-named walk-on characters. It's also another way to say something about the viewpoint character. Does he think of a well-dressed guy in glasses who walks with a limp as 'Gimpy' or as 'Poindexter' or as GQ? What does he/she pick up on? How does he/she characterize it?



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