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I have read some scripts recently which features a scene that refers to a group of background characters without naming them, but to distinguish between them uses "descriptive names" instead.

Eg. The Big Nurse kindly comes over with a blanket. The Pretty Nurse works on the EKG machine while the Trainee Nurse rushes in to help everyone.

What I like about this format is that it capitalizes the descriptive names as if they were actual names without affording the character a proper name (since they are overall insignificant to the story), indicates their relevance (they are all nurses) and provides the bare minimum description for us to distinguish them. I feel this works better than Nurse 1, Nurse 2 etc since it is easier to distinguish them this way, and also better than giving them actual names because that would distract the reader into thinking they are important yet we never see them again.

Not sure if it's just me, but I haven't ever seen this kind of naming format in book writing and I am wondering if it's ok practice to use it?

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In scripts, the first introduction of a character is usually all in CAPS.

Three men emerge from the saloon; MEAN MAN scowls, SOBER MAN checks both directions on the street, DRUNK MAN stumbles down the one step, falls, and sits on the ground laughing.

This is typically done for two reasons. You always want to give your characters some, um, Character, so the actor has something to work with. The All Caps is standard script format for any character (by name or description) the first time a character is introduced, or as the heading of a dialogue snippet. Thereafter, you would use the moniker as a name:

Sober Man descends the step and offers him a hand to get up.

SOBER MAN On your feet, brother.

Yes, you can do a similar thing in a novel with "walk on" characters that will appear only in one scene, without the caps. It is useful there, like in the script, to provide some "color". In the script it is for the benefit of the actors and director to have something to work with; in a novel it is for benefit of the reader's imagination to have something to work with, toward visualization.

Either way you (the author) are trying to build a scene in the reader's mind. Directors and actors are professional imagineers and need less to work with than lay readers of fiction; in a novel you can be more expansive in your descriptions. In a script more sparse, using words with more punch.

For example, in a script you can simply say a character is "an ugly man" with no further description. The director and casting people will determine precisely what "quite ugly" that will be in their movie.

In a novel, just "an ugly man" is not enough; you will need to be more specific for a typical reader to build up an image.

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In novels, it's much more conventional to do this by using just plain old descriptive names in lower-caps, like "the big nurse," "the trainee nurse," etc.

Normally you wouldn't capitalize these names; two exceptions...

  1. A character is using it as a noun of direct address. This is the rule that allows you to have Mother capitalized if someone is saying "Hello, Mother." even though normally it would be uncapitalized when used generically "I saw my mother today." It's the same concept, just applied to any old noun phrase. "Hey how you doin, Big Man?"

  2. Sometimes in novels I see characters make up ad-hoc names for people based on a description. It can be kind of tongue-in-cheek, informal. "Hey I saw Big Nurse the other day, and you know what she was doing?"

A couple of keys that I think help with that technique (#2):

  • It only works if you don't use the same descriptor for multiple individuals
  • It has to sufficiently distinguish a person from other individuals. i.e. if there are multiple nurses who could be thought of as "big" then it's probably not going to work.
  • It especially makes sense with certain voices. If the speaker either doesn't care about the people's actual names or doesn't have a way of finding out their names, it especially makes sense. Or if they're in a transient situation where it doesn't make sense to bother learning names. Or if they have a particularly jaded or misanthropic personality.

Also IMO it works best to comedic effect with quirky, oddly-specific descriptions rather than overly generic ones but...YMMV.

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