4

Problem

I'm writing a play that includes a number of minor characters who only exist for a scene or two. They are defined by their personality traits, not by their professions, and their names are irrelevant (I could introduce them, but they don't really matter). I'm unsure of how to refer to them in the script.

Options I've considered

Give them names in the script that aren't said in the play

Dramatis Personae:

  • John Doe, the protagonist
  • Alice, the prepared townsperson
  • Bob, the unprepared townsperson

JOHN: Is it going to rain today?

ALICE: I think so. I brought my umbrella.

BOB: Uh oh, I left mine at home.

Refer to them by their personality traits

Dramatis Personae:

  • John Doe, the protagonist
  • A prepared townsperson
  • An unprepared townsperson

JOHN: Is it going to rain today?

PREPARED: I think so. I brought my umbrella.

UNPREPARED: Uh oh, I left mine at home.

Give them numbers, continuing from previous scenes

Dramatis Personae:

  • John Doe, the protagonist
  • Several townspeople

(In a previous scene, John talked to four townspeople. This scene starts with him approaching two new ones)

JOHN: Is it going to rain today?

TOWNSPERSON 5: I think so. I brought my umbrella.

TOWNSPERSON 6: Uh oh, I left mine at home.

Question

How should the script refer to these minor characters whose names are irrelevant?

10

Every character must have a name.

The name doesn't have to be a real name, but it needs to be something that identifies that character as unique.

In a novel, you can get away without naming characters. But a play requires casting. If you are going to have a person on stage, they need to know which lines are theirs. The director needs to know who they are and how many there are. The other actors need to know who to direct their lines or actions to.

So name them. Any of the following are fine:

  • Alice, Bob, and other real names.
  • Townsperson #1, up to Townsperson #5, etc.
  • Woman in bakery.
  • Man with umbrella.

I wouldn't use "prepared townsperson" and "unprepared townsperson," because they don't sound like distinct ways of referring to a character. Also they're similar in a way our eye doesn't always catch (like it would with a #1 or #2).

It also makes sense to lump minor characters together and give them numbers. So instead of having a dozen "townpersons" who never interact, maybe have:

  • Yoga student #1 & #2.
  • Cashier.
  • Woman walking dog.
  • Bakery customer #1, #2, & #3.

Just so it's clear, not terribly long, and makes it easy for the director and others to figure out who is who.

4

+1 Cyn, however, typically you use a designation (Woman #1, Cop #1, Kid #1) and always number sequentially from 1, using '#', and don't not use random numbers like 5 or 9. If you want to be specific on the crowd size, if you think that makes a dramatic difference, then be specific. (It can, a crowd of 6 is dramatically different than a crowd of 60).

A crowd, about a dozen men and women, two uniformed police officers, the mayor and eight councilmen, all male.

Woman #1: I think this is a rip-off!

Man #1: Corrupt! That's what it is!

Woman #2: It's stealing money from the grade school!

Councilman #1 (into microphone): Calm down, everybody! It's just a loan!

Woman #1: A loan that won't ever be paid back! It's a rip-off!

Cop #1: Ma'am, please calm down.

Man #1: Or what? She's got rights!

Cop #1 looks at Cop #2, Cop #2 waves a cut-off signal at his own throat. Cop #1 rolls his eyes up and ignores Man #1.

You can add other dialogue tags to this for direction if you want (angrily, tearful, shouting, wearily, calmly).

The numbers give the director the count of exactly how many of these anonymous SPEAKING PART actors he needs, the designation a notion of costume and purpose.

If you say "Townsperson #5" it seems there are at least 5 speaking parts. The only men, women cops or councilmen that get a number are those with action or speaking parts, everybody else is just part of the crowd or one of several.

I will also say "Townsperson" is too general, pick a gender at least, that can dramatically change the weight and tone of what is said.

An action but non-speaking part is like Cop #2 above. Or "Man #2 raises both middle fingers far above his head, directed at the Mayor."

Remember the play is a story, but first it is a PLAN for the director in visualization and casting and to some extent the challenges of production and rehearsal.

Random members of an upset crowd are just extras. They don't have to be at the read-through, or at multiple rehearsals. But anybody that speaks or takes specific action needs more attention, in casting and rehearsal, even if they are only in a single scene.

If you have a character that appears in two or more scenes, name them (capitalized) and describe them, even if they have no speaking part (e.g. they could be background comic relief, like a janitor always getting himself in trouble); this tells the director it is the same character, so you aren't forced to refer to Man #1 from scene 3 or something. it is just like

In the b.g. throughout CARL, an elderly janitor, is struggling hard to open a folding ladder, with no success.

  • For the record, I wasn't conceiving of random numbers in the script, just that each character named that way would be present or absent in different scenes (or present and speaking at different times). But I see how it might look like I was using numbers randomly as part of a name. I edited my answer to be clearer, thanks. – Cyn Jun 16 at 15:37
  • Alright. Note the only ones that get numbers are those that spoke. If John speaks to a group of 10, and only one of them speaks (#1), then in another scene speaks to a different group of 10 and one of them speaks, that is #2, not #11. Also, if Townsperson #1 is in two scenes, they should be given a name, even if description is nonexistent. Normally, we'd expect numbered-generics to appear in ONLY one scene, we are not going to remember them. Having a name tells us they will appear later, their look and costume matters (should be memorable) and so on. – Amadeus Jun 16 at 17:33
  • What if someone has a specific action to perform (not just background) but not an actual line? – Cyn Jun 16 at 17:43
  • I wasn't clear. As in the last line of my example, if they only appear in a single scene you should number them; Cop#1 looks to Cop#2 for guidance; Cop#2 (with no lines) signals him to not cause a scene. Same for OfficeWorker#1 bringing a note to the boss. Or my other example of a non-speaking action "MAN#2 raises both middle fingers far above his head, aimed at the mayor." – Amadeus Jun 16 at 21:44
  • Thanks. I appreciate learning more about the conventions. – Cyn Jun 17 at 5:11

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