Column D: The Name Game – Choosing Character Names, Part 3

By Drew Yanno

In my first column on this topic of character names, I wrote about making those names distinctive and memorable so as to help your writing stand out from the crowd.

And last month, I talked about which characters should actually have a name versus those whose presence in the script shouldn’t merit more than a generic label.

character names 2In this post, I want to talk to you about the actual names you give to your characters and how they appear on the page and how they might eventually sound should you be fortunate enough to sell your script and get it made.

Before I do that, let me point out that choosing the right names is one of those seemingly small things that writers don’t give much thought to but that can actually make a big difference in how a reader responds to their script.

Surprisingly, I see bad naming choices in scripts from beginners to pros alike.  The latter might be able to survive this not-so-minor annoyance, especially if they’re writing on assignment.  But for those of you working on spec, I caution you not to take the chance that your reader will be so forgiving.

I’ll begin by giving you an example from a script I recently consulted on.

It featured a solid story, some pretty fine writing and some nicely drawn characters, but there was one big problem.  Seven of those characters had a name that began with the letter “B.”

Because of that, I found myself constantly confused as to which character was which.  Think about this: Bobby; Brian; Billy; Bradley; Buster; Ben and Bart.  Imagine if you had to remember all those characters and who was who.  Oh yeah, and they’re all men.  Mind you, this wasn’t done intentionally.  It wasn’t part of the story that they had those names.  It was never referenced.  And it certainly wasn’t a comedy.  On top of that, there were other characters who had names that started with the same letter.

As a result of this, about every five pages, I found myself going back in the script to figure out who was who.  That’s not a good thing to have happen when someone’s reading your script, whether for a consult or as a prospective project.  Like a shark, a reader has to keep moving forward and turning the pages – toward the end, not the beginning.

Here’s my simple bit of advice to avoid this: Don’t have two or more characters with names that begin with the same letter.

I told you before that you want your character names to be distinctive and memorable.  Well, if they begin with the same letter, you run the risk of making them that much more difficult to distinguish.  Remember, you don’t want to confuse the reader or make their job harder than it already is, given the sheer volume of material they have to read.

Look at it this way: There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet.  To avoid “over-crowding” your script, there probably shouldn’t be twenty-six named characters with a speaking part, so it shouldn’t be much of an issue to avoid.

Again, there are always exceptions.  Your story may require more than twenty-six named characters.  If so, you’ll have to give a few of them names that start with the same letter and, admittedly, there aren’t many Quentins, Xaviers or Zachs you can use.

If you find yourself in that situation, I suggest you make one name short and the other long, one syllable versus multiple syllable.  Having the names sound different and look different on the page will help the reader keep the characters straight.

A corollary of this is to avoid names that sound alike or look alike on the page, even if they start with a different letter.  For instance, it would be wise not to have a Stan and a Fran.  Or a Tim and a Jim.

Again, the potential for confusing the reader is too great and there are plenty of names out there to choose from and plenty of ways to find them.

This is a simple rule and, thankfully, there’s a simple exercise you should employ before sending out your script.  Go through it and list all the character names.  If you find that you have more than one beginning with the same first letter, or two that look alike on the page, change one of them.

Doing so will make life easier for the next person who reads your script.  While it may not help to sell it, it will surely help to eliminate annoying someone who could keep it from moving up the ladder to a decision-maker.

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