Column D: The Name Game – Why Are Character Names Important? Part 1

What’s in a name?  In a word – everything.  OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But when it comes to screenwriting, how you choose and present your character names can have a significant impact on how well your screenplay is ultimately received by a professional reader.

character namesAllow me to elaborate.

Oftentimes I’ll read a script and the characters populating it will have the most ordinary names imaginable.  Joe, John, Mary, Susan…

Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those names.  Millions of people in real life have those names.  Heck, you probably know lots of people with those names.  Except that you’re writing a script you hope will convince a reader that you have talent.  You want to make them keep reading.  Above all, you want to impress them.

One of the ways you can to do that is to give some thought to the names you invent for your characters.  You want your script to be memorable, right?  So why not help do that by giving your characters names that are memorable?

When it comes to choosing names, lots of writers get hung up on the sound of those names.  What it’s like to hear the name.  And that’s not a bad thought.  Except it’s a long way until your script gets to the screen, if ever.  When it comes to selecting a name for a character, I advise writers to make the name not only sound good, but look good on the page, as well.  After all, that name is going to be read first.  It has to pass that test long before it might ever be heard.

In addition to sound and look, writers often employ other means when it comes to giving their characters memorable names.  Fine.  I’m all for it, so long as it achieves that goal.  However, I’m not suggesting you go overboard here.  I’ve known writers to choose names that have some sort of weird origin or cultural derivation.  You know, it’s Gaelic for “one who carries a goat on his shoulders.” Forget that.  Just take some time and effort to choose interesting names.

OK, so how do you do that?  Well, there are a couple of ways.  Nicknames, for one.  We all like nicknames for the very fact that they aren’t ordinary.  And they’re memorable.  Isn’t that the whole point of a nickname? If you describe one of your characters as fat and you call him Sticks, the reader is likely to recall that.  The contrast between the name and the character makes it memorable.

Another trick is last names.  You can give your character an ordinary first name coupled with a memorable last name.  Then use the last name for the character in description and dialogue.

One of my favorite examples of this Harrison Ford’s cop’s name in Witness – John Book.  John couldn’t be more ordinary.  Probably the most ordinary of first names for men.  But the surname Book isn’t ordinary, at least as a last name.  Plus it seems to have a few associations with the character in that film.  Recall that Book is pitted against some corrupt cops.  Compared to them, he goes “by the book.”  Then again, he roughs up a suspect and beats up a guy when he is disguised as an Amishman.  In that instance, he doesn’t go by the book.  And, of course, cops “book” suspects.  On top of all that, Book is a strong sounding one-syllable name that the writers wisely chose to use in description and dialogue instead of “John.”  And, oh yeah, it both sounds and looks good.

Notice I picked a main character in my example.  This is where naming is most important.  Again, you don’t want to go overboard with giving every character in the script an unusual or uncommon name.  There may be story reasons why you would select a rather ordinary name for a secondary character.  For similar reasons, you may want to give your main character an ordinary name.  However, in that circumstance I would advise you to give more uncommon names to the other important characters.

OK, so where do you find these memorable names?  Well, the short answer is – just about everywhere.  I’ve heard of writers using all kinds of devices.  Their childhood friends.  A book of baby names.  The Baseball Encyclopedia.  The phone book (if you can still find one).  Those are all fine.  But I think we hear all kinds of names throughout the course of our lives.  I recommend that you keep a notebook handy and write down names you hear that grab your interest.  Hey, if they grab your interest, they’ll probably do the same for a reader.  Then when you start your script and you’re searching for names, you can open that book and look for ones that might fit your characters.

In my next column, I’ll write about another important aspect of character names, namely, who to name.

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