The importance of character names

September 20th, 2010 by

When I was in Banff, Canada recently, I got into a discussion with two writers about the question: How important are character names? The question had arisen because one writer was working on a screenplay in which the names they had originally ascribed to a couple of characters no longer fit. That said two things to me:

First, it’s a good thing because it shows that their characters were coming ‘alive’ in the writing process, evolving into their own ‘self’ beyond the monikers which had been tacked onto them.

Second, it evidenced the answer to the question: Character names are very important.

As an example, consider these two female names:

Hortense

Kymberly

Don’t they suggest different personalities?

Nicknames are particularly revealing. Here’s something I read recently in Marc Norman’s book “What Happens Next” about the great screenwriter and playwright “Paddy” Chayefsky:

“This chesty nonnegotiator was born Sydney Aaron Chayefsky in 1923 in a tough Bronx neighborhood, a bookish child, short and unprepossessing. ‘Paddy’ was a nickname he picked up in the army during the war. Roused for kitchen duty one Sunday morning, he insisted his commanding officer let him off to attend mass. The officer pointed out he’d made the same request the previous morning, Saturday, on ground of being Jewish. ‘Yes, but my mother is Irish,” Sydney replied. The officer shrugged, said, ‘Okay, Paddy,’ and the name stuck. Chayefsky liked the two-fistedness of it, not so much for who he was was for who he wanted to become.

Chayefsky was a strident, even bombastic personality, hell-bent on maintaining creative control over his scripts at all costs — definitely a Paddy, not a Sydney or Aaron.

Good names can suggest some primary value, core essence, or narrative function of a character. Since our written interview today is with George Lucas, consider the names in Star Wars: A New Hope:

Luke Skywalker: Stuck as a youth on the dusty plains of Tatooine, yearning for adventure, then finally getting it as a Jedi — in effect walking through the sky. And, of course, the obvious connection between Lucas and Luke.

Han Solo: Particularly in Episode 4 where he’s introduced, the character is out for himself, acts according to his own set of rules — a character who is used to working solo.

Darth Vader: “Darth” as in dark and “Vader” as in a variation of the German word vater or father; therefore dark father, a huge clue to the character’s Nemesis function as well as his relationship to Luke (revealed in The Empire Strikes Back).

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Just sounds like a cool, Samurai type Mentor / Wisdom character.

Of course, indigenous cultures have long had traditions in which names reflected the core essence of a person. For example, this is reflected in the 1970 movie Little Big Man:

* Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman): As a white child, this Protagonist figure ends up being raised by Indians. He is dubbed Little Big Man — “little” for his physical stature, “big man” because of his bravery. In the larger scheme of the movie, which is very much like Forrest Gump in that Crabb seems to careen through important events, bumping up against well-known figures such as Wild Bill Hickock and General George Armstrong Custer, his character is, indeed, a little big man — in terms of history.

* Sunshine: The Native American woman Crabb falls in love with — of course, bringing sunshine into his life — then tragedy when she is slain in an attack by Custer’s army (his ‘sunshine’ turned into ‘darkness’) setting into motion Crabb’s revenge, providing key information which Custer interprets the wrong way, sending he and his army to their slaughter at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

* Old Lodge Skins: Crabb’s Mentor figure among the Indians, “old” because of his age, “lodge” perhaps meaning home or dwelling (that is, he is the master or spirit of the tribe’s domestic order), and “skins” because of how many years he has lived, how many skins he has shed in that time.

Indeed, when some of the Indian women lose their husbands in battle, there is a tradition that one of the surviving men must have sex with the women so they may procreate and sustain the growth of the tribe. Crabb is chosen for this task and in the movie, there’s a funny sequence of him coupling with one Native American woman after another, including one who is particularly physical in her amorous ardor. To which Crabb says in V.O., “They didn’t call her Digging Bear for nothing.”

There are probably thousands of movie examples where names reflect the core essence of a character, some primary value they have, or function they carry in the plot — from John Book, Harrison Ford’s character in Witness, a good cop who goes ‘by the book’ (the letter of the law) in opposing his friend and mentor, the bad cop Chief Paul Schaeffer, to Malcolm Crowe, Bruce Willis’ character, who makes the shocking discovery at the end of the movie that he’s actually dead, tipped off by the word crow, which is symbolic in many cultures for ‘death.’

So clearly, names are important. But how do you come up with names for your characters? Here are a few tips:

* Determine the core essence, primary value, or key narrative function of your character as that can inspire your brainstorming of names.

* Baby names: A great source of names at websites like this one.

* Telephone books: I’ve flipped through many a white page to look for interesting surnames.

* Online character name generators like this one.

And then there are some basic guidelines to consider. This article lists some considerations:

Let the Names Reflect the Characters

Make Sure the Name Doesn’t Belong to Someone Famous

Avoid Names That End in S

Use Names That Fit the Period

Avoid the Trends

Avoid Overly Weird Names and Cute Spellings

Avoid Names That Sound the Same

Avoid Androgynous Names

Don’t Get Hung Up on the Meanings

This last point is a helpful counterbalance to the focus of my argument above because you certainly do not want your character’s name to be too obvious a reflection of who they are and what their narrative function is — that could come off as OTN (On The Nose) and suggests a thin character rather than a multi-dimensional one.

Finally, a few really pragmatic points:

* Select names starting with different letters of the alphabet: This is a nod to all you Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter users who, when you type the first letter of a character, names with that letter immediately pop up, allowing you simply to hit Return to type out the name in full. If you have two or three characters that begin, say, with the letter “S”, then you have to toggle each time down the list to select the character in question. If you only have one character per letter, you can just automatically hit Return — saving you innumerable keystrokes. It’s also easier for a script reader to sort through your cast of characters.

* Don’t get hung up on names at the beginning of the writing process: When you’re in the Prep-Writing phase, brainstorming plot and developing characters, you can get bogged down trying to figure out names. Select a placeholder name, then — as my Canadian friend did in his screenplay — change it to something more appropriate as the character evolves. My favorite example of this is a Beatles’ song, when Sir Paul sat down and first plunked out a melody on the piano, the first words he gave to the song’s opening melody were “scrambled eggs” — later changed to become the title of the famous ballad “Yesterday.”

How about you? What experiences have you had naming your characters? Easy? Hard? Fun? Any tips you have to add?

[Originally posted June 13, 2009]

6 thoughts on “The importance of character names

  1. fictionwitch says:

    Great post!

    I think character names are crucial, and I spend quite a lot of time chosing mine. But I love the process. It's like finding the key to the character. Naming a character the wrong thing can seriously derail the planning stage. Often if you have problems motivating or understanding a character changing the name can make a huge difference.

    I find it a bit annoying that in movies the characters often have bland, interchangeable names (how many characters call Jack has Harrison Ford played, I wonder?) But perhaps it doesn't matter so much as in the novel, when the name confronts you constantly?

    There is also an interesting difference in names usage between the US and the UK. I remember reading a crime novel by Elizabeth George, an American writer who sets her detective fiction in the UK. Usually she is pitch perfect, but this novel was set in an English boarding/public school and had a boy called Kevin in it (I think he was a suspect so quite an important character) but that just ruined it for me, because no middle class boy in the UK would be called that, although it's a perfectly ok middle class name in the US.

  2. Peter Dwight says:

    Names are always fun and important to me. But I'm finding more and more that I tend to always change names later on in the writing stages. They tend to start off bland, much like the characters too. So like you said Scott, it's a good sign that the characters are coming alive.

    I like the example from Goonies. Everyone has a nickname, and it's very clearly correlated humorously with the characters, so they are even more memorable.

    When thinking about choosing names, I now always recall this humorous scene from Gentlemen Broncos…
    http://video.yahoo.com/watch/6299399/16340708

  3. Garrett says:

    I must admit, I do get hung up on names. But it's usually in the prep period that I concentrate on it. I can't bring myself to use a filler name, turning this person into a thing, just a character. I have to have the history and name before I can write them. Part of my process I guess.

    I definitely go through the alphabet and find that different beginning letters can give different connotations as well, which is interesting. I think "Sins of the Scapegoat" was the first time I've given names to characters and really thought the names worked and were meaningful. Though they might be a little OTN, I like giving a tragic detective the name "Catcher" just to be cruel, or a warrior(serial killer) for God the name Gabriel. It evokes the idea but is actually ironic, so it puts an automatic flaw in the character from the start.

  4. januaryfire says:

    Avoiding names that start with the same letter as another character is also important for clarity for the reader. It's easy to mix up who is saying what when the names start with the same letter or even have the same length–like JOHN and JACK and JOAN. On the page, when you're reading quickly, it can cause confusion, make the reader re-read chunks of dialogue and possibly make them not want to read more.

  5. amyp3 says:

    I hope some posters from the Done Deal board read this. I was so surprised at how casual some of them were about this whole issue.
    Because it's very important to me, and the name does evoke a lot about the person.

  6. [...] the wisdom of the advice that I had ignored for so many years, I decided to hit up a few different writing resources online, distilling their advice into a few general rules of thumb that I continue to [...]

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