Screenwriting

Screenwriting Tip #79: Character Names Matter

Photo by Jack Dorsey

Screenwriting Tip #79: Like titles, character names matter. Get them right and the characters seem to breathe and speak for themselves. Get them wrong and you’ll never figure out who the hell they are.

Ever finished watching a movie and realized you have no idea what any of the characters’ names were? Or maybe you’ve been writing a script and found yourself mixing up the names of the protagonist and her best friend—every time you go to type one, you type the other.

Look, names are hard. Just ask the creators of “therapistfinder.com” (spoiler: it’s for finding therapists, not rapists). But if you get them wrong, your characters aren’t going to feel entirely right. It may sound odd, but you’re about to spend months of your life living in close proximity to these fictional people, so you want to make sure they’re as richly realized as you can make them.

Don’t just steal your friends’ names or trawl through those time-wasting “baby name” websites. Actually take the time to research the perfect names for your story. If it’s a period piece, study literature and historical documents from the time and note down any great names that you come across. For a sci-fi or fantasy setting, exotic names work best if they’re grounded in some kind of reality. For example, you might decide that your made-up culture has a language that sounds somewhat like Korean—you’d then select some Korean names and alter them in interesting ways to come up with a set of coherent names for your characters. (Cordwainer Smith, a writer of far-future science fiction, named most of his characters by slightly altering the words for numbers in Mandarin, Hindi, and Russian.)

Contemporary names are a little trickier. The best thing to do is keep a notepad with a list of cool and interesting names. But if you don’t already have one of these, a good cheater’s technique is to look at your bookshelf—you’re a writer, so I know you have one—and pick out interesting author names. Along the same lines, searching IMDB.com for lesser-known actor’s names can sometimes yield quality results.

Remember, the best character names are:

  • Memorable but not bizarre. A name with six syllables and three apostrophes might make a character stand out, but nobody is going to remember it. Readers tend to blank on difficult or very long names, so try to stick to weird-but-short: Neo, Cyrus, Gaston, Scarlet, Ash, Deckard, Ferris, etc.
  • Cute but not too cute. Bad writers are forever giving their characters cute pun names that somehow relate to the character’s personality or to the theme of the film. They think the audience doesn’t notice, but we do. Oh, we do. On-the-nose names like “Eric Draven” from THE CROW (because he’s “Eric da Raven” —get it?) or “Parker Selfridge” (because he’s a mean, selfridge guy) are a huge gamble—if the reader doesn’t appreciate the joke, they’re going to be constantly distracted by the character’s silly name instead of getting immersed in the read. See also: Trinity, Martin Blank, Castor Pollux and (shudder) General Grievous.
  • Age appropriate. You don’t see a whole lot of eighty year-old women called “Amber” or “Chloe.” Why? Because those names weren’t popular eighty years ago. You can actually go online and look up what baby names were most popular the year your character was born. This is a subtle but incredibly effective way of making sure your names “feel” right for the characters they’re attached to.
  • Meaningful to you. I know I said don’t steal your friend’s names. But sometimes there’s just nothing for it—a character you’ve created is so closely modeled on somebody you know in real life that you can’t help but think of them as having the same name. The character and their name already carry emotional meaning for you, so you should try to nurture that connection. “Ricky” becomes “Nicky” without too much trouble, just as “Alicia” can be transformed into “Alyssa.” Just remember to change the name, for God’s sake—it’s not worth losing a friend over some unflattering description or dialogue.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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4 Comments
   Caitlin said on August 5, 2011 at 4:18 pm

I disagree that baby name websites are a waste of time. I like using babynamewizard.com’s NameVoyager tool to explore names that were trending when my characters would have been born.

And when I was a kid, I used to love flipping through the book my mom used to pick my name (real original, Mom – although she was ahead of the curve on that one) and finding interesting names and definitions that would inspire characters for short stories.

   KP said on August 11, 2011 at 10:28 am

Great tips there. This picks up on things that are so obvious yet the average screenwriter might miss. I see a lot of long, silly chracter names that just don’t fit but are chosen because they are unique are supposedly ‘cool’.
Very good excert, I will definately be reading more…

   Justin said on August 11, 2011 at 12:42 pm

STORY STRUCTURE, STORY STRUCTURE, STORY STRUCTURE – go see Kal’s excellent work at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

   Xander said on August 25, 2011 at 3:14 am

Kaitlin and JP: thanks for the comments! That baby name site looks interesting — I might try it out next time I need a character name.

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