Column D: The Name Game – Why Are Character Names Important? Part 2

By Drew Yanno

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This is the second in a series of three columns I’m writing on the often under-appreciated topic of character names.

In my previous post, I wrote about using interesting and memorable names for your characters, in particular, your main character. In this column, I want to talk about which characters you should actually give names to.

character namesI once read a bit of advice from a screenwriting guru who said that every character in the screenplay should have a name. I think his line of reasoning was something like: “Hey, they’re people too.”

That’s a nice humanitarian thought, albeit in a make-believe world.  However, trust me on this, if you give names to every single character in your script, you’re going to piss off the reader and “dilute” your story.

Why is that? It’s simple. Every time you give a character a name in your screenplay, you are – implicitly – asking the reader to remember that character. Now you may not intend to do so, but trust me, it will happen. It’s just the way our minds work when we watch a movie and, by extension, read a script. We will inevitably store that name in the back of our mind and watch for them to re-appear later on in the script.  If the character doesn’t re-appear, we’re likely to confuse them with another character or characters.  After all, you gave them a name.  They had to be important.  What happened to them?   Where did they go? You don’t want questions like that.  They create confusion during the read, and confusion can kill a script faster that a dose of strychnine.

Another reason for not naming every single character in your script is that every time you create a character – and name them – you are creating a potential subplot. Why is that? Well, subplots arise out of secondary characters and their relationships with the main character and/or other secondary characters. Giving a character a name is the starting point of a possible relationship. If you don’t want to create a subplot, then don’t name the character.

What’s the risk in creating a potential subplot you might ask? Well, there are several. If the reader thinks a subplot is developing, that’s just another thing they have to keep in mind, which will not serve your story if you have no intent to explore it. And since you don’t intend to pursue that subplot, you won’t resolve it, leaving the reader feeling that there is a “loose end.” I’ll write more about subplots in another column, but for now remember their connection to naming characters.

OK then, if you don’t give a character a name, then what do you do? Once more, it’s fairly simple. If the character is – let’s say – a waiter, then simply call them “WAITER.” If they’re a cop, then call them “COP.” By doing so, the reader will understand immediately that they need not remember those characters, nor worry about any possible subplot.

So apart from the generic cop or waiter, how do you determine who should get a name? I use a simple rule for this: If the character is going to appear in more than one scene, I’ll give them a name. (An exception would be a recurring generic character, such as that waiter, assuming you aren’t establishing a subplot with them, in which case they should be named.)

As a corollary to this, if the character speaks more than a line or two, they probably should be named – again, unless they only appear in one scene and have solely a generic purpose (i.e. “waiter”). Notice how having a character re-appear and/or speak more than one line gets you thinking about a possible subplot. It doesn’t always happen, but be aware of what you might be creating if you name that character.

That brings us to the question of just how many named characters there should be in a script. Is there a limit? Look, there’s no formula that I’m aware of, and I don’t have any empirical data to base this on, but I think generally that once you get over twenty named characters who speak and appear in more than one scene, you’re getting dangerously close to the point where you’re testing the reader’s capacity for remembering who everyone is. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever exceed twenty under any circumstances. It’s just that you better write a heck of a script and make sure your names are distinctive enough for the reader to remember and differentiate them.

In my next column I’m going to talk about one final aspect to choosing character names. It’s one that’s often overlooked and a problem I see all the time, even with veteran writers.

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