How to identify actions and dialog of anonymous characters

msstice

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The following passage illustrates a common problem that drives me nuts.

"I'm very sorry to have to do this, Hamlin," the young man to his left was saying. The other young man marching on his right, the taller one, nodded silently.

"You're just doing your job," said Hamlin, hurrying along with them. "The log will show everything."

The shorter young man, who seemed to be in charge, cleared his throat. "That's just it, Hamlin. There's a gap in the log."

"A gap? Where? How long? There was no problem with--"

The men came to a stop. "A gap between when you landed, and when we found you, next to the sabotaged Sentinel."

The shorter man gestured with his hand. They had stopped in front of the doorway that had been the main entrance to Ishana's palace.



I have two minor characters we'll probably never see again, so I don't know if I should name them. But then I'm stuck with the problem of identifying which of the two is speaking/doing. I had to invent a physical difference between them (height) just for this purpose, but I find it awkward to use this as an identifier.

I could just have one person, but I want to show that there's at least two people in the guard that's escorting our protagonist.

How do you all handle the issue of anonymous "NPC"s that have a bit of dialog or action in a group?
 

Swank

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Create a distinctive MC POV shorthand for the characters. "The tall one with the double chin spoke first" becomes "Double chin" in following passages while the other becomes "Pimples" or "Big words".

Not only is this edfective shorthand, but allows the MC to comment on the qualities of the minor characters without any extra exposition.

Also an opportunity to inject some humor without breaking the mood.
 
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Create a distinctive MC POV shorthand for the characters. "The tall one with the double chin spoke first" becomes "Double chin" in following passages while the other becomes "Pimples" or "Big words".

Not only is this edfective shorthand, but allows the MC to comment on the qualities of the minor characters without any extra exposition.

Also an opportunity to inject some humor without breaking the mood.
Agreed. Think of how you perceive people when you do not know their name. We all tend to boil someone down to the most dominate trait at the moment and that is enough. It does not even have to be a strictly physical attribute like height, weight, pimples, etc. If the POV character noted an accent then suddenly they're the Irishman, or the German, the Waterdhavian, whatever.
 

paranoid marvin

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When telling a story, you have to tailor it to fit the media you are using. In writing, one of the most important things is to enable the reader to visualise what you are telling them. This may mean that you have to tweak in ways that a movie wouldn't have to.

I think that you could be in danger of being too descriptive in this case:

young man marching on his right, the taller one

shorter young man, who seemed to be in charge


Here we have four characteristics for each of them, when you could just call them 'guard on the left' and 'guard on the right'.

We're being given a lot of information about two minor characters, who (as you say) may not appear again, and being asked to distinguish between the two when there's no real need for it.

Why not have just one guard doing the interacting whilst the other remains silent?



"I'm very sorry to have to do this, Hamlin," the guard to his left was saying. The one to his right nodded in agreement.

"You're just doing your job," said Hamlin, hurrying along with them. "The log will show everything."

The guard continued, "That's just it, Hamlin. There's a gap in the log."

"A gap? Where? How long? There was no problem with--"

They came to a halt (in military terms halt may be more appropriate than stop?). "A gap between when you landed, and when we found you, next to the sabotaged Sentinel."

The guard to his right gestured with his hand. They had stopped in front of the doorway that had been the main entrance to Ishana's palace.
 

Wayne Mack

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In general, I try to keep dialog passages between two people without regard to how many people may be present in the scene. This eliminates the need for repeated tagging of speech. I also find it helpful to first establish the scene rather than dribbling it out in attached tags and action beats. This also allows for a fuller description of the scene. Don't feel that it is necessary to give each of the characters equal face time.

Consider beginning with a description of the two guards and that the shorter one is in charge. This would also give an opportunity to describe their uniforms, weapons, and whether Hamlin is bound, manacled, or whatever. The first line of dialog could then be opened with, "The lead guard said," and the repeated use of Hamlin's name could be dropped. The dialog that follows would be clear without the use of tags as it is a simple back and forth between Hamlin and the short guard. Having the group stop in the next to last paragraph is unnecessary, as that information is repeated in the last paragraph.

My preference would be to structure the sample about as: Opening description, back and forth dialog with a tag on the first line by the guard, closing description. Play around with using that layout and see if it feels like something that you like.
 

tinkerdan

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It can depend a lot on the nature of your characters and the scene.

What I mean by that is that if there is a lot of dialogue between the two one scene characters, you might have to look a the characters and decide.

There are a number of people I know who when speaking to others often address the recipient by name and then there seem an equal number who don't use names and seem to assume that despite the number of people in the conversation they will all somehow figure out whothey are addressing even though there is a lack of personal identification

Also consider that the lack of names might push the reader one more step away from the story and the characters where personalizing it with names might draw them closer.

Then there is the narrative POV which can influence it. If the POV doesn't know the names of the characters then they'll be using other means to identify them. Or if your POV narrative is more omniscient they might just rattle off names with no introduction because--well--they know all.
 

JunkMonkey

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Why do you have to describe them or where they are in relation to Hamlin at all if they are going to play no further part in the story? Keep it simple.


"I'm very sorry to have to do this, Hamlin," one guard said. The other nodded silently.

"You're just doing your job," said Hamlin, hurrying along with them. "The log will show everything."

The first guard, who seemed [to whom?] to be in charge, cleared his throat. "That's just it, Hamlin. There's a gap in the log."

"A gap? Where? How long? There was no problem with--"

They came to a halt in front of the doorway that had been the main entrance to Ishana's palace.

"There's a gap," The first guard said, "between when you landed, and when we found you, next to the sabotaged Sentinel."
 

sknox

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I have something similar. Two guards. My MC is approaching in a storm and they are commenting on him as he draws near. The scene is only a couple hundred words or so. I just looked through it, and they are just one guard and the other guard. No further description necessary, as the focus is really on the approaching figure and their opinion of him.
 

msstice

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The first guard, who seemed [to whom?] to be in charge, cleared his throat.

I'm using a close third style in the whole book. I avoid saying "Hamlin thought" or "to Hamlin". I hope it will be invisible to the reader but this suggests I should post a larger example from somewhere to make sure most people read it as intended.
 

msstice

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Thank you for this interesting thread. There seemed to be more votes for minimalism, and I like minimalism. I'm also trying to follow the maxim of not a wasted word, so I will make the descriptions of the guards more strategic, revealing more global info, while simplifying the dialog tags.
 

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