Appellation

NAMING YOUR MOVIE CHARACTERS WELL


"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."
TERRY ROSSIO
Wordplay

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, anticipation (dramatic 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.

Play God!

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, etc. This creates a dramatic skeleton of meaning, the dialogue and action providing the flesh.

Character naming operates on various levels

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Names that Mean Something in English like McGovern, Gonzo, Farmer, Autumn, Harry, Fanny, Lucy, Constance, Prudence, etc. This happens so much in life we often overlook it even in dramatic stories, yet the meaning stares us in the face. Nicknames work well in this vein. Consider the nicknames used in the James Bond movies, 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".
  5. 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 can 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 thoroughly. You can proudly join the long procession of great writers who have carefully named their characters 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:

  1. Character Naming Resources at Writing-World.com.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 him.
  4. 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 . .


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EXERCISES:
  1. Review Gary Altman's THE PLAYER. Consider the character name of the woman the central character confesses his sin to (his Icelandic lover). What does it sound like to you in English? Consciously and subconsciously?
  2. Consider the character names "Scarlett", "Rhett", "Melanie", and "Ashley" GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). What do they bring to mind?
  3. Consider the names of the main characters in THE GODFATHER (1972): "Vito Corleone", "Sonny", "Michael", "Fredo", and nickname "The Turk". What was author Mario Puzo conjuring up with his choices?
  4. Consider the names of the main characters in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005). Why "Ennis Del Mar", "Jack Twist", "Alma", "Lureen Newsome", "Randall Malone", etc.?
  5. Consider the main character names in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), "Hannibal Lecter" and "Clarice Starling". What do you think novelist Thomas Harris was after with his choices?
  6. Consider character names in Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN (1992), e.g., "William Munny", "Little Bill Daggett", and "Ned Logan". Consider the town of "Big Whiskey". What was screenwriter David Webb Peoples doing with his naming choices?
  7. Why are the main characters named "Lolita", "Humbert Humbert", and "Clare Quilty" in LOLITA (1997)?
  8. What's with the names "Monty Brogan", "Jakob Elinsky", "Frank (Francis Xavier) Slaughtery", "Naturelle Rivera", "Mary D'Annunzio", "Kostya Novotny", "Uncle Nikolai", "Salvatore Dominick", and "Doyle" in 25th HOUR (2002)?
  9. In THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) consider the character names. Why "Truman" for his first name? "Burbank" for this family name? "Christof" for the television producer?