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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, July 11, 2005

On Character Names

In a post on a slightly different topic, Kristen over at My Back Pages mentioned the topic of choosing a new name for one of her characters. And it got me thinking that choosing character names is a topic worth discussing. Clearly there are many more pressing matters that determine the worth of your screenplay. Even presentation may be more significant. But on a more subtle level, character names contribute to the undertones your script presents, and deserve similar attention to the titles you choose for your films.

One of the more significant issues I encounter in relation to character names is the use of overly generic names. Certainly there is a certain realism to having characters who all have typical names like John, Debbie, or Mark. But at the same time, this facilitates potential confusion on the part of the reader, who has to think about which character is David and which is Josh. The problems are exacerbated when the names are somewhat similar in sound or structure. This was why Kristen was considering changing her character's name. She didn't like the way two female characters both had names ending in "A" -- Julia and Kendra. I would see the same issue if you had characters named Jim and Joe. I can't tell you how many times I've read amateurish scripts and had to stop as I read a character's dialogue so I could look back and ask myself which character was actually speaking. I mean that I could see the character's name was "Bob," but I didn't remember if Bob was a certain character, or his brother or something.

Now clearly this problem becomes more obvious when the writing quality is poorer. If your characters truly speak with unique voices, the reader doesn't need to even look at the character prompt to know who is speaking. But even if you do write the characters individually, why complicate things unnecessarily (unless there is a reason to give them similar names, such as a thematic commentary)?

I like to choose names for my characters based on a few things. Sometimes I look at subtle references to their character in their names. I don't mean to spell it out too clearly, but rather just to make a slight hint at the values of the character. I believe that names have a certain power and significance, and I try to at least slightly capture that.

For example, in one of my scripts, I had a character who was a real pop-culture junkie, and worked as an ad exec. I chose the name Carson, both as a reference to Johnny Carson, and to add in a little contemporary feel in relation to Carson Daly. Another character in that script was a stock trader, a bit overly money-driven. Rich would have been a bit too obvious, but Chip worked for me. He came from a WASP background, and as a trader was something of a gambler. An earthy, artsy, hippieish black female character got the name Jolie, and I could feel her glowing through the name. And I named an impish bike messenger Pan, though we later learn in passing that this was merely a diminutive nickname based on his surname. They were the four central characters in a comedy, and they each have distinctive names that not only separate them from each other, but also from the typical names of characters in general.

Other times, I might choose names based more on their sound. In Hell on Wheels, the main character is named Zane. There aren't many names that begin in "Z," and this automatically gives him some uniqueness. I also chose the name as a slight tribute to Zane Grey, the famous Western novelist. His mentor, a vampire hunter with a slight dark side is named Stagg (his last name, in my mind, but the name he goes by). It just sounded right, hinting at a wild hunt, stalking, and an inner strength.

My overall point is that a distinctive name can go a long way, without necessarily sacrificing any measure of realism. Don't overthink them, digging down deep into word origins, and the like. But if you pay attention to the way they sound, and the vague general resonances they present, you can add a bit more sophistication to your script. At at the very least, even if the names you choose have no significant positive effects, at least do your best to avoid the negative effects of boring names that exacerbate and highlight the lack of uniqueness in your characters themselves.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a Z named character in my current script. I love the ring of a good name too

12:54 AM  
Blogger Kira said...

Wordplayer has a great column on this.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks Fresh! I've been VERY slowly working my way through those WordPlayer columns. I'm going to read that one right now! :-) And welcome to the blog!

7:58 AM  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Hey Joel, thanks for coming by my site, screenwriter bones. I like your blog, and I'll have to check out your articles in the mag as I've written two family films myself for Paramount, each I'm told with blinking green lights - which means - nada yet, baby. Ah well. As for character names, great post - and crucial as a title for good story telling. Names should be distinctive, and different within a story so that you don't have a Judy, Julie and Joan in the same script, for example and hopelessly confuse your reader. But sounds literally have a tactile feel, and you can shape your names to the "feel" of your characters. Dickens of course was a master, as was Tolkien, but you don't have to write exotic stories to have names that are dinstinctive and original. I also believe that unusual spellings, or consonant heavy names, common for villains, are also easy on the eye to recognize, and make it easier for a lazy reader to track the character through the script. For exmpale: Francois Deveroux is one of my favorite villain names, as it fit the character, and was very original. Best titles by the way - the ones that are a little poetic, edgy, or are double entendres, (double meaning for all those of you out there who don't speak French).

12:11 PM  
Anonymous character names and meanings said...

It is helpful when it is clear how a character name should be pronounced - in the search for unique character names writers should keep in mind that the reader has to pronounce the name to themselves throughout the writing piece. Names that are difficult to pronounce may inter fear with a smooth reading flow. It may also be a good idea to ask people what they think or associate with certain names before you finalize your decision. You may get some surprising feedback.

10:42 AM  

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