One of the most difficult tasks screenwriters face is to come up with good names for characters. That’s because they know that the right name can help convey both a character’s personality and meaning in a story, as well as help viewers connect with a character.
On the flip side of the coin, a “too creative” name will sound forced and no one will connect with the character. It’s a tough position. Luckily, generous writers through the years have shared tips on how to create good names for characters.
General Rules for Character Names
Every screenwriter learns these general rules. Keep them in mind before naming anyone in a screenplay.
Stay realistic. Unless your story is set in a fantasy land, it’s OK to use names such as Mary and Stephen because many people are named Mary and Stephen in the real world.
Make names meaningful to the plot. George Lucas gave the world a big clue with the name Darth Vader, as “vader” is based on “vater,” the German word for “father.”
But don’t get cute. It’s just distracting to saddle your characters with names that are clearly designed to catch attention. That said, in some types of films it works, such as Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family.”
Don’t use famous names. If you name the villain “Adolph,” that’s just silly. Don’t borrow from history or past films unless it is somehow entwined with the plot.
Tips For Choosing Strong Names
Picking the right name can become time-consuming as writers struggle to get it exactly right. To help writers with the process, Writer’s Digest offers tips for naming characters that include the following.
Check Name Meanings
You might want to avoid naming the villain of your screenplay Michael (“gift from God”) or Angela (“messenger from God”). It works, however, if you want to use the name in an ironic fashion or for a character that moves from the light to the dark (for example, “The Godfather”). While not every viewer will know the name’s meaning, they can sense if it’s off.
Get the Era Right
Nothing snaps a viewer out of the story faster than giving a character a name that didn’t exist in the time period of the film. They didn’t name boys Bentley in the first half of the 20th century – that was only for the car. Same for spelling Khloe with a “K.” And unless you are writing another “Scooby Doo” film, no one should have the name, Velma.
Say the Names Out Loud
In a screenplay, obviously, the name will be spoken. Make sure the name doesn’t sound confusing or make a joke you don’t intend to make.
Mix the Sound of Names
Make sure the sound of each name is distinctive for each character. You don’t want Sam, Pam and their teacher, Ms. Beckham, all in the same scene. Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove,” and the epic television movie made from it demonstrate the good use of different sounds in the main characters: Gus, Call, Lori, Deets, Pea, Newt, Jake, July and Clara.
Using alliterative initials can work well to draw attention to special characters because they stand out. Think Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape and Willy Wonka (not to mention many superheroes and supervillains).
Creating strong character names is part of the writing process learned in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Screenwriting degree program. Writers leave the program with the skills needed to find success in the competitive world of screenwriting, including ways to come up with good names for characters that viewers will long remember.