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A Guide to Naming Your Characters

April 18, 2016
4 min read time

Choosing names for your characters is an important part of the writing process. The names you choose will not only indicate what type of character it is, but also make them easier to read on the page.

In a screenplay or teleplay, the names of your main characters appear many times on the page (both in the action and above the dialogue). If there are several characters who have scenes together, it helps not to give them similar names (unless this is a plot point of some sort). You should also avoid giving characters names that begin with the same letter. In real life a guy named Michael can be dating a girl named Michelle, or a guy named Robert might be friends with a guy named Richard, but you're writing a screenplay, and you want it to read well. It doesn’t matter how engaging your story is, or how richly nuanced your characters are, if there isn’t enough distinction between your characters’ names, it will make it a confusing read and act as an eyesore. The more the names are cited, the more necessary it is to distinguish them. Let’s look at the three main characters in the original Ghostbusters: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler. So we’ve got three characters whose first names all begin with a different letter. Peter and Egon both have two syllables in their names, Ray has one; and one of the names, “Egon”, is an unusual name (the other two are more common). This is a good template to follow. If you were reading the script for Ghostbusters , it’s likely you wouldn’t have a problem distinguishing Peter, Ray, and Egon from one another. The last name of a character is usually only used to designate them as an authority figure or someone with a formal relationship to the other characters. Once you decide to use the first name or last name, stick with it. Generally speaking, the more consistent you are in your formatting, the more professional you’ll appear. If you have a character named “Bob Smith” and you’re calling him “Bob” for the first twenty pages or so, don’t suddenly start calling him “Smith” or “Mr. Smith”. It will make your screenplay very confusing to read.

Getting past the basics, there are other things to consider when naming your characters. What does the characters' name say about them?

If your character is an “every man” or “every woman”, then a common name should be used. Note that Peter and Ray are the more “down-to-earth” Ghostbusters whereas Egon is the highly cerebral one whose hobby is collecting “spores, molds and fungus.” His name is appropriately offbeat. From Screech on Saved By The Bell to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, giving the “uber nerd” or “outsider” character an unusual name is a well-tested technique.  And in one famous case, the character Steve Urkel, from Family Matters, was referred to primarily by his last name. This was not only a way to emphasize his offbeat personality, but to portray him as an outsider. This technique was also used to distinguish the various characters in Seinfeld: Kramer, Newman and Peterman were more eccentric or at odds with Jerry, George and Elaine. When Frasier Crane was introduced on Cheers his name was appropriately academic and upper crust. He was created to be part of a love triangle with the series’ main characters, Sam and Diane. Frasier was everything Sam wasn’t and vice versa. It was only years later, after his character took off and got his own series, that Frasier’s background was revealed not to be as upper crust as he portrayed. It turned out his father was a former Seattle cop (although Frasier had said his father was a scientist, and also dead, in an episode of Cheers). Paternal revisionism aside, the creators of Frasier still picked appropriate names for the other Cranes: Martin is an “every man” name for the working-class, straight-shooting father, and Niles is another name, like Frasier, that suggests a sibling who is likewise cerebral and sophisticated.

Sometimes a character’s name can have a more poetic or symbolic significance. There’s a scene in Pulp Fiction in which Bruce Willis’ character Butch has a conversation with a taxi driver named Marsellus. Marsellus asks him what his name means. He quips it doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps this was Quentin Tarantino injecting a touch of irony, after all, the word “butch” means “masculine in appearance or behavior” and Butch's character is classically macho: boxer, muscular, aggressive, filled with honor and pride, etc. And while we’re talking boxers, the name Rocky Balboa might say more about the character than simply that he’s an Italian-American. After all isn’t Rocky “a rock”? Like “a rock”, he’s someone who’s not only dependable, but you can’t knock him down, he’s immovable, he’ll go the distance, etc. Also look at the name of Rocky’s opponents: Apollo (Sun God) Creed is the heavyweight champion of the world, who basks in the spotlight; Clubber Lang (a club is “a heavy stick with a thick end, especially one used as a weapon”) is a living, breathing weapon, who wants to club Rocky into submission; and Ivan Drago’s last name is one letter away from “dragon”, a mythical beast which typically needs to be slayed by a hero.

The fantasy genre is filled with symbolic names. When George Lucas was penning the early drafts of Star Wars, his characters went through many different name changes. The original protagonist was a young Jedi-in-training named Annikin Starkiller. The older Jedi master was named Luke Skywalker (essentially the Obi-Wan Kenobi character). Lucas decided the word “killer” was wrong for a heroic character, so he ended up using Luke Skywalker for the young protagonist and renamed the Jedi master. “Annikin”, of course, was later revised as “Anakin” and applied to Luke’s father. And most recently, “Starkiller” was used as the name for the Death Star-like weaponized planet in The Force Awakens (an homage to Lucas’s original script). Darth Vader means “Dark Father” via a loose Dutch translation. “Darth” clearly suggests “dark”, and “vader” is the Dutch word for “father” (though pronounced different than it’s pronounced in the Star Wars films). Regardless of Lucas' original intention, the words “Darth Vader” evoke the idea of menace.

So the next time you’re deciding what to name your hero, your villain, or your outsider, ask yourself what name is going to look best on the page and is best suited to the character you are creating. This is just one aspect to crafting memorable characters.

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