"A name is like a tightly-wound DNA molecule, capable of conveying information about
characterization, tone, story and theme. Naming your characters is a crucial creative task."
A good dramatic story is essentially an engine for establishing and releasing dramatic
potential, and you should exploit every opportunity to this end--including naming. Name your
characters (and everything else in your screenplay) deliberately, intentionally, and artfully if you
want to succeed as a Hollywood screenwriter.
Why should you name characters carefully in your screenplay?
Successful dramatic writers put a considerable amount of
thought into naming their characters. They expend huge time and effort creating just the right
names (appelations; sorry, but it continues the 'a' theme). They do this to establish mood,
potential), suspense, depth,
texture, interest, intrigue, irony, and humor. They do it to make their dramatic story work by
setting it up properly, and indicating which way it's going to go, what changes are afoot.
Sophisticated screenwriters name characters carefully because they want to play
God. That's what the screenwriter is: God of the Universe he's creating in his screenplay. If
God plays jokes on us when He names people in the Universe He
created, as He most certainly does, why can't the writer do so too?
First create a 'dramatic skeleton' of meaning
Names of characters can and should be used to
establish what the story is about, theme, meaning, atmosphere, etc. Properly done, careful naming
of characters in the movie will tell who's what kind of person, who's
going to do what to whom and where, what the mood is, what the genre is, emphasize the irony,
This creates a dramatic skeleton of meaning, the dialogue and action providing the flesh.
Character naming operates on various levels
- Interesting Names that go beyond Bob, Debbie, Sue, and John (unless the writer has a
specific, and very important reason for using such) can do so much to make the script more
readable. Mix it up with Greta, Nicholas, Wilbur, and Chandler--even if they were chosen without
rhyme or reason, and the meanings aren't known.
- Names that Just Sound Like They Mean Something such as Samantha (witchy), Deke (manly),
Tim (wimpish), Troy (effeminate), or Ashley (half dead) in Gone
with the Wind. You can even make
them up like Flannery O'Connor did with Hulga (a fat, ugly woman) in her short story A
Good Man Is Hard to Find.
- Names with Historical, Biblical, and Classical References such as Rachel, Jesus,
Caesar, Adonis, Jason, Moses, etc. can bring a world of memories, meaning, and significance to a
character instantly. Place names can also be made quite meaningful and powerful in the same way.
- Names that Mean Something in English like McGovern, Gonzo, Farmer, Autumn, Harry,
Lucy, Constance, Prudence, etc. This happens so much in life we often overlook it even in
stories, yet the meaning stares us in the face. Nicknames work well in this vein. Consider the
nicknames used in the James
e.g., "Jaws" the steel-toothed thug, "Odd Job" the do-it-
all factotum, etc. Nicknames can also set up humor and irony when they work the mind in the
opposite direction of the facts--compare "Baby Face" Nelson to "Scarface".
- Names that Mean Something in Another Language like Linda ("beautiful" in Spanish),
Brendan ("prince" in Gaelic), Michael ("who is like God" in Hebrew), etc.
You can also apply what you've learned to the naming of places and things, etc.
Meaning on the subconscious level
Viewers not given to interpreting the meaning of names, for whatever reason, will likely pick up
meaning on a subconscious level. Some may even learn about it through critical reviews, or by
studying film or screenwriting at some point in their lives, thereby enhancing their appreciation
for what goes into writing an exceptional dramatic story, and for the stories themselves.
A 'life force' of meaning
By spending time and effort on careful naming, you infuse your story with the life force of
meaning, helping you tell your story better. A story you now know better because so much time has
been spent investigating its underlying meaning, themes, and who does what to whom and why. You
make a small story big simply by using names that connect to broader worlds.
Join the long procession of great writers.
You can benefit from that sense of accomplishment that comes from doing a job well and
You can proudly join the long procession of great writers who have carefully named their
before you, and can enjoy a bit of "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" with those who appreciate the
sophistication of your abilities and the glory of your effort.
CHARACTER NAMING RESOURCES:
- Character Naming Resources at Writing-World.com.
- Terry Rossio makes a strong argument for careful character naming in his essays on
screenwriting posted at Wordplay. He and his writing partner spend two weeks prior to
actually writing a script just getting the names right.
- Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita serves as an excellent
seminar on the importance of naming. He takes considerable pains to
name everything in the book, and to explain why he does so. Perhaps it's the English professor in
- For the single best reference on the variety of names you can use for your characters, pulled
from every important region and language on earth . .