SPECS & THE CITY: The Power of Character Names

What’s in a name? When it comes to the characters in your script, it’s probably a lot more than you think… or at least it should be. I’m always surprised by how many writers pour their blood, sweat, and tears into the most miniscule plot details of their story, only to slap names on their characters without a second thought. It’s an unfortunate misstep that’s all too common, and one that can have a huge impact on how people (you know, like readers or development execs) react to your script.

Character Names and Your Script

Pat attention... this WILL be on the test

Pat attention… this WILL be on the test

To put it simply, there’s power in a name. Right or wrong, every names comes with its own baggage; shaping our perception of who someone is (or isn’t).

Imagine the following scene: A young man out on a blind date timidly knocks on the door of a suburban home. The door slowly opens and into the frame of the door, light shining behind her, is Mary. But what if her name was Tiffany; or Gertrude; or Sam? Chances are, each one inspires a completely different mental image of who this woman is. Being aware of what stereotypes are associated with different names can help you pick the right one, whether you’re looking to play with or against those stereotypes.

Additionally, there are a few general guidelines (note that I said guidelines, not rules) for things to avoid when naming your characters that you might want to keep in mind the next time you sit down to populate a world.

  • Ambiguous names: Unless you’re writing a purposefully ambiguous character – think ‘Pat’ from Saturday Night Live – you need names that let a reader know what sex your characters are in a clear and concise manner.
  • Multiple names that start with the same letter: Are the characters in your script named Carl, Charlie, and Calvin? How about Susan, Samantha, and Sarah? This can get confusing for a reader quickly when it comes to keeping track of who said or did what. Confusion leads to needing to reread, and needing to reread, leads to a quick PASS on your coverage.
  • Giving a name to every single character: Here’s another tip to limit confusion. We can only hold onto so many pieces of information at one time. So, while it’s nice that you know that the the garbage man in your scene is named Jim, if Jim doesn’t play an active roll in the plot, do us all a favor and call him GARBAGE MAN.
  • I'm not gonna tell him that his name is ridiculous...but it is.

    I’m not gonna tell him that his name is ridiculous…but it is.

    Using names that describe the main characteristic of your character: People tend to think they’re being clever when they name a character that’s really physically intimidating something along the lines of James Strong. Trust me, it’s not clever. Not even a little bit. So stop, okay? Thanks.

  • Being too generic: Sure, in the real world plenty of people are named Joe and Jane, but name a major character that in your script and you’re basically telling a reader right up front, “I didn’t put a lot of thought into this.”
  • Being too outlandish: On the other side of the scale are those names that are just, what’s the right word? Oh yeah, ridiculous. The most recent offender here is Pacific Rim. It’s a perfectly enjoyable popcorn flick, with a main character named… wait for it… Stacker Pentecost. Don’t do this people. Seriously. Unless your characters live in the Shire, they should probably have a real name.

Now, these are all just guidelines of course, but the main point is that it pays off to put as much thought into what your characters name are as you do into how you plan on breaking into the third act. You’re telling your story on the back of your characters, taking them to Hell and back over the course of 120 pages. The least you can do is start them off with a good name.

Until next time, never name a character Stacker Pentecost, and keep writing!

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