The ability to choose strong character names is crucial to success as a screenwriter. Character names hold meaning. They have the power to draw audiences in, provide additional layers of context, or even foreshadow events in a story. While there are no rules for selecting character names, a number of guidelines can prove useful during the writing process.
Naming Your Characters
Many professionals agree on the following tactics for choosing character names.
Make Your Names Interesting
Like any piece of entertainment, screenplays require the writer to immediately grab the reader’s attention. Choosing memorable character names can help do this. Try to make sure character names aren’t too bland, and that they don’t sound overly similar. This helps avoid confusion. It can be just as boring to read about John and Jane as it is about Katie and Ashley.
There are several ways to actively make character names stand out. Writers sometimes use alliteration (Bilbo Baggins) or combine first and last names from different sources to make a full name sound unique (Wednesday Addams). Sometimes they can also imaginatively re-work relevant words to fit their needs. (For example, Darth Vader comes from vater, the German word for father).
Use Unconventional Strategies for Name-Finding
Research is a common method for writers to find names for their characters. While baby books are an easy source, sometimes you can branch out your search. Old yearbooks, phone books, spam emails, cemeteries, or any other place where names are listed can serve as a source of inspiration.
Consider Differentiation and Readability
Screenwriters should try very hard to avoid unnecessarily confusing their audiences. Choose names are relatively easy to pronounce. Avoid odd spellings. Names that end with the letter “s” can make speaking that name in its possessive difficult, so try to avoid that as well. Many professionals suggest giving each character in a screenplay a name with a different first initial, or varying their syllabic lengths or cultural place of origin. Finally, differentiation should be considered for every character, no matter how minor. Short Security Guard and Tall Security Guard is a much better technique than Security Guard No. 1 and Security Guard No. 2.
Don’t Name Everyone
Although you should make it clear that every person in your script is unique in some way, naming each one isn’t necessary. When you name a character, you are implying to the audience both that it is important to remember him or her, and introducing the potential of a subplot. If neither of these are your intention, the audience will be frustrated and confused. If a character has more than two lines of dialogue, this is usually a sign that he or she needs a name.
Take time to ensure that the names you pick correctly reflect a character’s background and life context. If you are writing about a character with a cultural background different from your own, don’t just pick their name at random. Do research to understand how that culture chooses names, and that the names you’ve chosen make sense. The same principle should be applied to the character’s time in which they live, their age, and any other influencing factors.
Consider How Names are Used
How the character is referred to can be as important as their name itself. Nicknames and titles can indicate relationships, social and professional status, and levels of intimacy. Consider Indiana Jones, for example. Whether he is called by his full chosen name (Indiana Jones), his title Dr. Jones), his nickname (“Indy”) or his legal name (Junior), says a great deal about both who he is and how he is perceived by others.
Let a Character’s Personality Inspire You
Names are often indicators. They can inform the audience of a facet of a character’s temperament, foreshadow events, or even reference other works of fiction. Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty is taken directly from the adjective which means “doing evil or harm.” In the Harry Potter books, “Remus Lupin” is a werewolf whose name is derived both from the Roman myth of twins raised by wolves, and from a Latin word lupinus, which means wolfish.
In contrast, it may also prove useful to choose names that go directly against expectations. The Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope is famous for being a can-do person, something that goes directly against the implication of her surname, “nope.”
Say Names Aloud
Screenplays are meant to be spoken. Saying a character’s name out loud can give you a better sense of how the audience will ultimately hear it. This practice may even inform you of the rhythm and cadence of your script.
Even after you think you’ve found perfect character names, always double check. Do the names make sense? Did you accidentally name a character after a real person you shouldn’t have? Do your names actively bring meaning to your story? Be thorough and intentional.
Ignore These Guidelines
Because every writer is unique, every script is different. There are always exceptions to the rules. Once you’ve learned common techniques for choosing character names, you can better tailor them to the individual needs for your project. Ultimately names are just one of the many tools writers use to render the stories they want to tell.
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At Point Park University, our online screenwriting degree is designed to help students gain the skills they need to go further in their professional storytelling careers. As one of only of a handful of its kind in the nation, the degree trains students in writing for a host of mediums such as television, video games, animation, and web series. The program can be completed in as little as two years, putting graduates on the fast-track to career success.