As movie fans, we’re gifted with memories from movies we love, especially those characters that we quote and scenes we relive and rewatch and relate to others about.
Think about a list of absolutely common names – BUT, given a movie title after their name, those names take on a whole new meaning:
George Bailey (“It’s A Wonderful Life”)
Tony Montana (“Scarface”)
Sarah Conner (“Terminator”)
John McClane (“Die Hard”)
Then, think of highly unusual names – names carefully chosen to be ‘high concept’ or, in other words, the words on the poster tell you a lot about the movie to expect:
What do all of these names have in common? They were created by screenwriters with a vision for the character.
Now, take it a step further and think about who you envision by reading some of these actual character names from movies without the titles:
Your mind is conditioned. You’ll recognize some but for others, an image of the ‘type’ of character appears, based on their name.
Granted, actual names are not the point but creating that frame of reference in your mind’s eye as you read a screenplay is very important to the reading experience and could tilt the scales in your favor for a sale or option.
Now, there’s more to the name game than creativity. For readability and ease of understanding --
Avoid names that start with the same letter for characters that frequently interact. Look at any screenplay and, because the names are aligned down the page, if there is JAKE under JOHN and they’re talking to JANE, it may interrupt your reader’s flow as they have to pay specific attention to who’s saying what. It’s avoidable and works in your favor. [also, check out why white space matters]
After getting away from names that start with the same letter also, avoid names with the same number of letters or characters in the name. It’s much easier to read dialogue between KURT and MARLENE.
Finally, avoid names that have odd spellings. (For instance, I recently learned of a great new name – Asiah and only after writing it into a script learned that it’s not pronounced “AS-IAH, it’s really pronounced ‘Asia’). I decided to change it. I didn’t want a character addressed that way.
WHEN TO NAME
Apart from spending time thinking of the right name for your characters, there’s also a time when you don’t name a character with a speaking part.
As a general rule, speaking parts with more than one page of dialogue should have a name.
Not mandatory by any means but what you want to avoid is GUY #2, GUY #3 and GUY #4 having a discussion at a card table.
HAVE FUN WITH IT
As writers, we’re always gravitating toward distraction. Anything but opening a vein and pouring our blood, sweat and tears onto the page – but here is a legitimate distraction that can actually help you –
Take a few moments and envision the life of a script reader. A slush pile of scripts and the expectation of finding and not missing the diamond in the rough. That’s opening a lot of oysters for just one pearl.
However, if you put a little bit of effort into naming your cast of characters, you’ll create a fun reading experience for someone who desperately needs it – and thereby increasing your chances of your screenplay being that pearl or diamond in the rough. [reach the industry decision-makers]
I’ve spent a lot of time exploring names of characters for this piece and, as always happens when researching, found something I did not know before --
Christina Ricci’s character in Addams Family is Wednesday. Charles Addams, when he was creating the character, named her after a line in an old nursery rhyme, “Wednesday’s child is full of woe.”
In “iZombie” the main character's name, Olivia "Liv" Moore, is a pun on her zombie status (she gets to "live more" after her death)
In “Sons of Anarchy” the character names of Opie and Floyd the barber are nods to the Andy Griffith Show. Opie of course was Sheriff Andy Taylor's son, and Mayberry's town barber was named Floyd.
In “The Hunger Games” Elizabeth Banks plays a pivotal character in the story, who has become an iconic image in pop culture, yet her character's name (Effie Trinket) is never spoken in this movie -- only in sequels.
WHO’S IN A NAME
Another distraction – you know you love them. Imagine you are hired to write a feature for the next non-Marvel Superhero or Pixar lead character. That name will be on the poster, merchandise, T-Shirts and a future answer to trivia questions – and you get to create it. Take your best shot – Consider this an entry in your “scripts waiting to be written drawer” and it’s just a character’s name – challenge yourself. Come up with a few and KEEP it in your drawer. It might not be next week or next month but at some point you will circle back through those potential script ideas and you’ll find inspiration. Maybe it will be time to write that script or add to that character profile. The possibilities are endless. Now that I’ve offered distractions – this is my retraction to buckle down and do some writing!
MY TWO CENTS
Naming a character is and should always be a personal choice for the screenwriter. Unless you are in the extremely rare air of Producer / Screenwriter / Director – chances are your character names as well as much of your script are subject to changes from others. However, especially for spec scripts – give some thought to names and how they’re used in your story – why not try to add to the level of enjoyment of the reader by creating a few things within your control that can give nuance and texture to a story you feel passionate about shopping?
In the era of blind submissions and electronic delivery, create every advantage for yourself to set yourself apart from every other qualified script. [get pro coverage on your script]
Every server that waits on you and arrives at your table with “Hello, my name is _____ and I’ll be taking care of you today” is a potential character name for a future story. Embrace every name tag or store/server receipt as an ‘Opportunity.’ Writers write (and steal and borrow and research and work very hard) to create new, fresh and original names. The truth is – they are everywhere and right in front of us.
Play the name game often. It will reward, enhance and entertain.
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Blog written by Rick Hansberry:
Rick Hansberry is an award-winning screenwriter with more than 25 years of industry experience. With several produced credits on his IMDb page, Rick has written, produced and directed several short films. 2017 saw the release of two feature-length movies, "Alienate" and "Evil In Her." 2018 brought the release of another award-winning short, "My Two O'Clock". In 2019, Rick wrote, produced and directed his first web series pilot, "Clean Slate" and delivered creative and narrative material to an Emmy-winning documentary, "This Is My Home". Watch out for new productions from Rick later in 2022, including the feature roadtrip dramedy "Baggage Claim" (with Nikki Neurohr); a short romantic comedy, "Impression" (with Brooke Vanderdonck) and a horror feature, "Crimson Shadows" (with Chloe Carroll).
Rick is presently working on new shorts and features. He has dozens of scripts available for production and is also interested in spec writing, collaborating and adapting stories for the screen. Many of his scripts can be found on Script Revolution: https://www.scriptrevolution.com/profiles/rick-hansberry
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