Naming Your Characters

Names are more than just labels to identify different characters. Names can give each character a personality that audiences may not be aware of, but that subtly supports your story and theme.

In any story, the names of your characters shouldn’t be arbitrary. Charles Dickens used names to summarize the character’s personality such as Scrooge. In your own screenplay, don’t just slap a name on a character, but make it meaningful.

One way to do this is to create names that describe who the character is. So if you have a self-righteous preacher, you might name him Richard Wright (which is a play on the word “right”).

Besides almost literally describing a character, you might also consider choosing a name that mimics the character’s personality in a positive way or an ironic way. In “Star Wars,” George Lucas didn’t name his main character Wilbur Jones. Instead, he gave him a more powerful name as “Luke Skywalker.”

To point out the hypocrisies of a self-righteous preacher, you could name him “Albert Red” where the “red” implies his association with the devil.

Generally, you’ll combine a descriptive last name with a more ordinary first name. If you make both the first and last name too descriptive of the character’s personality, it may come across as too blatant, obvious, and phony. Luke Skywalker is acceptable, but Starkiller Skywalker might be going a bit too far. (“Starkiller” was actually Luke’s last name in the original draft of the “Star Wars” script.)

When choosing a more ordinary name for a character, it may help to choose a name that holds special meaning for you. For example, if the villain in your script is a real scumbag, name him or her after your ex-spouse or ex-boss. That way every time you think and write something about that character, you’ll be able to visualize exactly who that person is and how they might behave.

Do the same for your hero. Find someone you really like, such as an old girlfriend/boyfriend, and use that person’s first name for your hero. By choosing a name of somebody who you already know, you can easily transfer your feelings to your character in your script. Doing this can keep your characters from just being another name in your screenplay.

One more important factor to consider in naming characters. Give each character distinctively different names. For example, having a character named Anthony and another one named Andy can be confusing when read on paper, and can also be confusing when characters mention the names in dialogue. A better choice is to make each character’s name begin with a different letter and not sound anything alike such as Anthony and Jonathan.

Naming your characters can be nearly as important as naming your children, so don’t take it lightly. The names you choose can reflect and enhance your story. Even if an audience doesn’t consciously recognize the impact that names make, these names will still support your story. Now when audiences walk out of your movie, they won’t quite know what made it so good, but they will know that they liked it and that’s all that really matters (that along with collecting a fat paycheck for writing and selling your script in the first place).

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