Character Names

Some of the most important choices you make when it comes to your screenplay may be the names you give to the various characters. Believe it or not, a name alone can say a lot about a character and his personality type.

In this section, we'll look at how to come up with great character names, rules for naming minor characters, and some practices to avoid when naming main characters.

Baby Name Books:

When writing a screenplay, one of my most important reference books I keep next to my desk, aside from my atlas and my thesaurus, is a Baby Name Book. Granted, I didn't buy it specifically for use in screenplay writing -- my wife and I have had three children in four years -- but I've discovered it to be an incredibly useful tool when trying to decide a name for a key character.

Not only does the book I own have tens of thousands of names separated by gender and complete with the meaning and cultural origin for each, but in the front of the book are lists of boys and girls names currently popular in different countries and of different ethnicities, names that were popular in the past decades (useful if you are writing a period piece and need names common in the 1920s, for example), and common names often construeing a personality type (more on that below).

The book I use is called 100,000+ Baby Names by Bruce Lansky, the 2007 edition. But there are probably dozens to choose from. Just make sure the one you choose has the lists of names at the front like mine does.

Naming Based on Personality:

Aside from gender, ethnicity, country of origin, and time period, a character's name can say a lot about his/her personality.

I can remember as a child I watched a lot of WKRP in Cincinati. One scene that stands out to me today was one with a guest actor who was the strong, confident type. He had a name like Rod, or something to that affect.

At one point he turned to one of the sitcom's key characters and said something like, "I believe a man's name says a lot about the man. What's your name, by the way?"

The meek, less-confident character hung his head and answered, "Les. Les Nesman."

The same is as true today as it was when Loni Anderson was drawing in pubescent boys in droves to watch a show they ordinarily wouldn't have cared about. The name you choose for your important characters should say something about the character's personality.

Consider these examples:

STRONG: Duke, Kurt, Brock, Brick

WEAK: Les, Herb, Elmer

WEALTHY: Alexis, Porsha, Dillon, Montgomery, Maximillian

SEXY: Simone, Raquel, Brooke, Honey

NERDY: Sheldon, Truman, Dexter

HIPPIE: Harmony, Moon, Indigo, Autumn

ATHLETIC (JOCKS): Jake, Trey, Rod, Trevor

EVIL (ANTAGONISTS): Kaiser, Thorne, Wolfe

So when you are trying to think about a name for a character, think about the character's personality-type, and choose her/his name accordingly.

Remember, your protagonist may start out a nerdy weakling or a wealthy, pompous jerk (possible character flaws), but through the course of the screenplay he'll grow into something more, overcoming his shortcomings and, invariably overcoming the name he was given.

By the way, here's a small tip from the world of screenplay writing: Good Guys are typically referred to in Character Headings by their first names. Bad Guys are typically referred to in Character Headings by their last names.

Naming Minor Characters:

Minor characters with few to no dialogue lines shouldn't be given proper names. The moment a reader is introduced to a new character who has a proper name (such as Joe, Susan, Bob, etc.) the reader will assume this character is an main, important character to the overall story. If a character is introduced with a proper name in one scene, and then is never heard from again, it creates a head-scratching hole in the story.

So when naming minor characters, you don't give them proper names, but you still want to give them names that say something about their personality and/or their appearance if, for no other reason, to cue the director and casting as the how to address the character.

Here are some examples of quick names a writer could give to minor characters:

Chubby Geek, Bratty Kid, Nosey Neighbor, Tough Cop, Rude Clerk, Racist Old Man, Obnoxious Waiter, Hot Blonde, Angry Cab Driver, Longhair, Shorty, Stubby, Tubby, Softy, Four Eyes, Smoking Man, etc.

The list could go on and on.

By the way, if any of the minor characters have speaking roles, even if it is one, quick line, they'll be introduced in ALL CAPS the first time they appear on screen. Also, whatever name you give them, let that same name be their name used in the Character Heading.

Indistinguishable Minor Characters:

Sometimes you'll introduce a gaggle of minor characters all at once who are indistinguishable from one another.

For instance, one of my clients had a scene where a team of Mercenaries decked out in helmets, bullet-proof vests, and S.W.A.T.-style uniforms converge on a house. They all looked the same, with the same basic build and their facial features were covered. There was no way to distinguish one character from the next.

My client referred to them as Merc #1, Merc #2, Merc #3, etc. He could have said Merc One, Merc Two, and Merc Three, etc. as well. Nothing wrong with that! Just be consistent.

The same thing could happen with groups of Ninjas, Soldiers, Dancers, Bank Robbers, etc.

The key question to asked is, can you find a better way to distinguish between the characters other than with numbers. If not, numbers are fine. If so, then find a better way.

Other things to consider:

  • Always capitalize the first letter of each or these names in Direction (so, each mercenary is referred to as "Merc," not "merc").
  • If one of them speaks, that one is in ALL CAPS the first time he/she is introduced.
  • If there are only two such minor characters, find a way to distinguish between them. Only number minor characters if there are three or more of them.
  • If one of them is the team leader, barking out directions or something to that affect, don't mix him/her in with the rest. Give him/her a sort of minor character name (Team Leader, for example).
  • Avoid confusion! Having lots of characters with the same name distinguished only by number can get confusing to the reader, especially in long scenes with lots of action, such as the one in my client's screenplay. Make sure to keep everyone straight. In my client's scene, I really dug down into the scene to look for character placement mistakes. Low and behold, I discovered a couple of times where my client confused the characters and had them in the wrong places. Watch these scenes closely to be sure the reader doesn't get confused.

Same Character, Different Names:

Sometimes you'll have a character who has two different names. Maybe he leads a double life and is known by two different names. Sometimes he thinks he is one person, only to discover he is really someone else. Maybe people confuse him with someone else, or when he is undercover he goes by a different name.

In situations where a character is constantly referred to by two names, if is perfectly acceptable to format the character in Character Headings something like this:

Either way is fine.

Let's say Albert thinks he is Albert through much of the screenplay, and the Character Headings have referred to him as ALBERT throughout as well, but then he discovers he is really someone else. The writer can refer to him in Character Headings just as in the examples above from then on.

Now if the audience KNOWS a character's true identity, and that identity is clearly established (for example, if he were undercover in various scenes sprinkled throughout the screenplay), the character can be ALBERT in Character Headings, even when in scenes where other characters are referring to him as Sampson.

Same Character, Different Ages:

What do you do in Direction paragraphs when you have a character at various ages, for example, in a Flashback or in a time-travel film?

Look at this example:

Basically, whichever state the character is in through the majority of the screenplay is where he'll be referred to by his proper name.

So, if through most of the screenplay the character is nine years old, but we see him later as an old man, In his 9-year-old state he'd be Albert Stuart, but in his old-man state, he'd be Old Albert, or something to that effect.

However Albert is referred to in Direction would carry over into Character Headings.

Avoid Characters with Similar Names:

Avoid giving characters names that are similar, such as Betty and Betsy, Fred and Ned, Joel and Joey, Bonnie and Bobbie, etc.

This can confuse the reader. The last thing you want is to force your reader to have to back track to find a character's introduction so he/she can try and figure out who is who. Many won't take the time and will just add your script to the rejection pile in frustration.

Of course, if you have a pair of twins, you may not have a choice. Just be sure you do everything you can to avoid confusion. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare had not only two sets of twins, but the characters in each set had the SAME NAME! He still managed to pull off plenty of memorable shananigans while avoiding confusion.

You are not William Shakespeare.

Avoid Names that Confuse Gender:

Try not to give characters names that will lead to confusion as to the character's gender.

Don't give male character female names or vice-versa. Of course, there may be an exception to this rule if you are using this as a device in the film.

For example, I once had a client give a tough, bruising, no-nonsense male character a female name. The first time I saw the name I assumed it was a female (the client failed to say otherwise in the character intro). Then as the story played out, I was confused as I slowly discovered this was a male. Since the character was such a bad-ass, I assumed this would be a device used in the film. Maybe other characters know better than to make fun of his name. Maybe some make the mistake of reminding him he has a girl's name at their own peril. But by the time I got to the end of the script, the client had done NOTHING with it. He was just a man with a woman's name. I advised my client to change the name, and he did so.

Problems and confusion can also arise if you give a character a name that can be considered either a male or a female name, such as Pat, Lynn, Leslie, Dana, etc.

Again, maybe the name is a device used in the film, and that's fine. But if it isn't, change the name to something more distinguishable.

Basically, the first time an important character is introduced, the reader needs to know if the character is male or female. If the name is clearly a male name or clearly a female name, then the name itself should be all the gender description necessary. However, if the name says nothing of the gender, then the gender will need to be cued in the character description so as to avoid confusing the reader, which adds unnecessary writing.

Just give your male lead a good, old-fashioned man's name and be done with it.