5 Super Useful Ways to Name Characters in Your Screenplay

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One of the best character names of all time is only four letter. Courtesy: Lucasfilm.

One of the best character names of all time is only four letter. Courtesy: Lucasfilm.

Naming characters in a screenplay is simultaneously the best and worst part of writing. The best: You get to make up the names of the people who will live in your story forever. The worst: You have to live with these people for the rest of your writing process and never really know if they have the right names.

There’s that and the fact that choosing character names can be very daunting. What “sounds” good on paper might sound different when spoken in dialog. But ultimately, your job as a writer is to translate that story onto the page.

So, let’s start with five ways to choose great character names for the best read.

No. 1 — Use the A to Z method.

That means that if your main character’s name is Abbey, then her boyfriend’s name can’t be Allen or Alijah. It’s too many A’s in one script. And when the reader – most likely an intern or an assistant to a development executive or the like – reads your script, they speed-read. They don’t stop to verify if Bob and Bobbie are the same person.

One reader told me he goes through six to eight scripts a day. So, you do the math. That’s a lot of skimming, and when two characters’ names start with the same first letter, you’re making it tougher for the reader. To implement the A to Z method, the rule here is you only get to name two characters with an A when you’ve used every single letter in the alphabet all the way to Z.

Let’s hope you don’t have that many characters though!

No. 2 — Avoid androgynous names.

For the same reason we are sticking with one first letter per character, writers should avoid androgynous names like Casey, Robin and Kelly. You want your reader to “get” who this character is in your story as quickly as possible, and the right name is a great way to do that. So, why have the reader spend two or three pages wondering is this a man or a woman if you don’t have to?

There’s an exception to this rule, as there is with every rule, that if your character requires an androgynous name, then give it to him or her. Remember “Pat” in the Saturday Night Live sketch? This character needed an androgynous name for the sketch to work. If this is necessary for your story, then go for it. Otherwise, skip names that might confuse the reader.

Russell Crowe plays... wait for it... "Maximus Decimus Meridius" in Gladiator. Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

Russell Crowe plays… wait for it… “Maximus Decimus Meridius” in Gladiator. Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 3 – Give it context.

Character names can illuminate personalities and add meaning to your story. They can tell us about the person whose story this is. For example, in Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s character’s name is Gracie Hart. She’s a tough FBI agent, but she’s also got a lot of heart.

The meaning behind the character’s name can reflect their personality but also the time and location where the story takes place. If you’re writing a period piece set in Ancient Greece, naming a character to reflect that time period makes sense. Or if you’re writing a gritty cop drama, consider calling your characters by their last names. Writer Katie Dippold does this in The Heat, calling Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy’s characters by their last names Ashburn and Mullins, respectively.

No. 4 — Make it memorable.

Try this quick test for good character names.

Take out a piece of paper and write down 10 of your favorite movies. Now next to each title, write down the main character’s names.

Chances are you know those characters’ names. And it’s not just because the story is so great, it’s because their names are memorable, too. Choosing an iconic name goes across genres. Rocky, Yoda, Hannibal Lecter, Inigo Montoya, Scarlett O’Hara, Ichabod Crane, Bridget Jones, Forrest Gump, Shrek name a few, but there are so many more. Make your choice memorable like these, and you’ll inevitably hook the reader into your story.

Think about how clever this character's name is. "Cookie Monster" tells you everything you need to know about this character. It's fun, appealing and the reader “gets” it right away. Photo credit: Children's Television Workshop

Think about how clever this character’s name is. “Cookie Monster” tells you everything you need to know. It’s fun, appealing and the reader “gets” it right away. Photo credit: Children’s Television Workshop

No. 5 — Use common sense.

Avoid names that are too weird, too long, too hard to read. Make things easy for your reader and he or she will be kind to you.

Or… just throw that all into the wind and do what you want. If it’s creative and the story is good, rules can be broken. We’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite character names?

author-avatar

Jenna Milly is Editor-in-chief of ScreenwritingU Magazine, an inside source for the latest scoop from the screenwriter's POV on upcoming movies. She interviews some of the top writers in Hollywood for such movies as The Revenant, The MartianMission: Impossible and many others. She co-created the TBS microseries Gillian in Georgia. She earned her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Georgia and a M.F.A. in Screenwriting from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. She has written for CNN.com, The Los Angeles Times, Script Magazine, TwelvePoint, and a variety of magazines. You can follow her on Twitter: @jennamilly

22 Replies to "5 Super Useful Ways to Name Characters in Your Screenplay"

  • comment-avatar
    Steve G. November 29, 2016 (8:30 am)

    Thanks so much for this insightful, concise, and helpful article. I agree with you regarding the importance of choosing proper character names. I often struggled with that issue, even before I began writing my stories. I finally purchased a baby-naming book which was wonderful because it not only had a plethora of names, but the meanings and origins of the names as well. Regarding exceptions to the rules, writing stories based upon true stories/people can cause naming problems. Yes, the characters already have names, but I once had a story based upon “Gary” and his wife’s name was “Geri”. Oh-oh. (Fortunately they graciously let me use her middle name – Allison.) Thanks again for sharing this information.

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly November 30, 2016 (9:47 am)

      A baby naming book is a great idea! Thanks for sharing that tip!

  • comment-avatar
    John Puffer November 29, 2016 (8:31 am)

    Some favoritenames/cleverly done contextual names: all from American Beauty, Ricky Fitts…when clearly he does not, and Carolyn Burnham, who’s “carolin'” throughout, Brad, who “nails” Lester, angelic Angela, plain Jane… From Gone In Sixty Seconds, Randall Rains aka Memphis the boost king of Southern California links with Elvis, who still reigns as king of rock and roll, Donny Astricky — tricky-ass Donny, who never gets caught… From the American President, Andrew Sheppard leading his flock, Leon Kodak, the polling expert taking periodic snapshots of American public opinion

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly November 30, 2016 (9:48 am)

      Love all these references. I forgot about Carolyn Burnham and also Donny Astricky. Good ones! Thanks for this!

  • comment-avatar
    P.I. Barrington November 29, 2016 (9:21 am)

    Hi, Jenna! I am a published author (novels) and use most of the methods you describe above. I also loved your reference to Inigo Montoya. I actually laughed out loud!! Along with looking for names, many times my characters “tell” me their names as well. I also use names that can sound better on paper such as my latest novel, in which my main characters are named Alekzander Brede and Elektra Tate. I wanted a name that not only sounded harsh but was spelled that way too so I settled on Alekzander Brede (the last name meaning “ice” which pretty much describes him). Elektra Tate just popped up before I could even look it up. Most times I start with the name first that I use to either define or describe a character. I have other methods too which work like magic for me. Great article, thanks Jenna!

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly November 30, 2016 (9:49 am)

      Those are great! Have you ever had to change a name in the middle of writing? If so, what’s that like? I hate it when I have to do that. Thanks for the note!

  • comment-avatar
    William Sommerwerck November 29, 2016 (9:44 am)

    I often give characters names that symbolize who they are or want to be. If a character has a specific ethnicity, I make sure their name is consistent with that ethnicity.

  • comment-avatar
    Florent November 29, 2016 (11:04 am)

    Great article. Thanks!

  • comment-avatar
    Tammy Gross November 29, 2016 (12:14 pm)

    It’s also important to consider the way the name looks on the page, especially when 2 characters have a long dialogue sequence. They may not sound at all alike, but the same length or same syllabic structure can confuse (esp. in Courier 12 font):
    WELLINGTON
    MAXIMILIAN
    or
    CARL
    EARL
    NEAL
    or
    MARK
    HANK
    JAKE
    ZACH
    RUSS
    BESS
    ANNE
    DANE
    FINN
    LUCY
    SUZI
    GERI

    It can actually be useful to name peripheral couples with the same starting letter(s) if there are a lot of named characters:
    CHELSEA
    CHAD

    Rhyming names make it very hard for readers & viewers, even if they aren’t perfect rhymes:
    BRANDY
    DANNY
    NANCY
    or
    CARSON
    LARSON
    DAWSON
    PARSONS
    or
    LOUISA
    WEASEL
    RUIZ

    I read tons of scripts where multiple characters have variations of the same name, & they’re not even related:
    BILL
    LIAM
    WILLY
    GUILLAUME
    MR. WILLIAMS
    or
    IAN
    JOHANNES
    JONI
    SEAN
    JACQUES
    DR. JOHNSON
    or
    PEGGY
    MARJ
    MARGARET
    MISS GARET

    Sometimes the names have similar imagery, which confuses if not handled well & on purpose:
    JEWEL
    PEARL
    OPAL
    CRYSTAL
    When handled well, as in KEEPING UP APPEARANCES, it can work great:
    HYACINTH
    ROSE
    DAISY
    VIOLET

    I’m amazed by how many people use names that distract simply due to pop culture or historical ignorance. USE WIKIPEDIA!
    ETHAN ALLEN
    JOHN QUINCY
    JIM HAWKINS
    WAYNE GACY
    LIZ BORDEN
    The show MURDOCH MYSTERIES randomly uses familiar/similar names that are irrelevant to the story. I’m sure they think it makes them memorable, while I as a viewer find it distracting & annoying:
    HENRY HIGGINS
    SADIE HOPKINS
    MRS. HAVERSHAM
    FANNY GLOVER
    HERBERT HUMPHREYS

    In true/historical stories, there are often several real people with the same or similar names. Give them distinct, relevant nicknames:
    ANTONIO SR = DON ANTONIO
    sons:
    ANTONIO JR = TORO (bull in a China shop)
    MANUEL = MANNY (manly, friendly)
    MIGUEL = MIKO (monkeys around)

    My pet peeve is generic naming. There are 20 cop roles in a procedural, yet we are supposed to keep track of COP 1, 2 & 3? They need relevant distinction:
    GRUMPY GUARD
    DETECTIVE DOC
    SGT SNEEZY
    DOPEY COP
    HAPPY HENCHMAN
    BASHFUL BAILIF
    OFFICER SLEEPYHEAD
    But physical distinctions are typically irrelevant & minimize casting:
    DON’T use FAT COP, UGLY COP, SKINNY COP, etc. unless there’s a story reason.

    And, of course, rules are meant to be broken. How boring to read Alice in Wonderland with IDIOT 1 & IDIOT 2 when TWEEDLEDEE & TWEEDLEDUM are so much more memorable & fun. Confusion works well in Wonderland.

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly November 30, 2016 (9:51 am)

      The Bill William one is hilarious. I can see how that could happen if the writer is just so engrossed in the story, he or she forgets to think about the names. I’m guilty of it myself! Thanks for sharing this!

      • comment-avatar
        Tammy Gross December 5, 2016 (9:49 am)

        In one of those click-bait trivia sites, I learned that M*A*S*H named any pro-athlete characters after 1978 LA Dodgers players. That gave an added laugh to sports fans.

        They also accidentally confused wife names Mildred (Potter) & Laverne (Klinger) several times.

        Funniest of all, they called every peripheral nurse Baker, even if they were regular background players. They even had a whole episode devoted to the character played by a one-time guest actress, then went back to randomly calling the regulars Baker whenever it suited the scene.

        • comment-avatar
          Vincent December 6, 2016 (6:24 am)

          My favorite current sitcom “Mom” has done something similar with Raiders players. Daughter Christy (Anna Faris) and mother Bonnie (Allison Janney) are named Plunkett, and Bonnie’s late ex-husband (Kevin Pollak) had the last name of Biletnikoff.

    • comment-avatar
      DizzyC December 7, 2016 (4:08 am)

      Accidental use of names with the same derivation/meaning is surely due to not doing one’s homework (aka sheer ignorance…). As it happens, I’ve looked into ‘Margaret’ (for other purposes) myself: seriously informative & interesting.
      And the tip about a book of babies’ names is useful…surnames too, where appropriate especially in a historical context’

  • comment-avatar
    Derle November 29, 2016 (12:58 pm)

    Extremely beneficial information! Thank you!

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly November 30, 2016 (9:51 am)

      Thanks Derle!

  • comment-avatar
    Cobalt Blue November 29, 2016 (12:58 pm)

    Dracula, William the Bloody (AKA Spike), Benjamin Button, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Powder, Nosferatu, Elliot (from E.T.), The Mad Hatter, Cinderella, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Cujo, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, Daddy Warbucks, River Tam…

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly November 30, 2016 (9:53 am)

      Love Edward Scissorhands, what a great one. Thanks so much for sharing. Beetlejuice is awesome too. And Rumplestiltskin. Wonder how the Brothers Grimm came up with their names. Genius!

  • comment-avatar
    Cobalt Blue November 29, 2016 (8:52 pm)

    Jaws.

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly November 30, 2016 (9:52 am)

      Yes! Jaws is the best. Thanks for sharing!

  • comment-avatar
    Patricia Poulos December 6, 2016 (6:12 am)

    Thank you. As always, what you impart is of great benefit to writers.

  • comment-avatar
    Vincent December 6, 2016 (6:16 am)

    An invaluable and wonderful tool for naming characters comes from, all people, the Social Security Administration. It has listed the top 1000 baby names in the U.S. for every year since 1879 at https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/index.html. You’re also able to get ranking info on a particular name by year (great if you’re doing a period piece and decide to name a 1920s flapper Trixie), by state and more.

    As for me, I also use some personal background when naming characters. A lead character in a recent script is a Las Vegas casino waitress named Colleen Cossitt — Colleen for silent-era comedy star Colleen Moore of Dutch bob-hairdo fame and Cossitt for a street in the Syracuse neighborhood where I grew up. (Her older sister is named Maureen.) Colleen’s love interest is scientist Keswick Fletcher, a member of an old-money Bay Area family (he has multiple degrees from Cal-Berkeley). I just liked the name Keswick, although I’ve never seen it used as a first name before, and it seemed appropriate for the character. Colleen’s best friend is Meg Switlik; in my youth, my family drove past a New Jersey elementary school named Switlik, and it stuck in my mind. Finally, the antagonist is a blackmailing mobster/Vegas “gentlemen’s club” owner named Vito Cortez — the last name is a tribute to pre-Code actor Ricardo Cortez, who specialized in playing smarmy bad guys who generally were killed off by the leading lady after betraying her. (Vito isn’t killed in my story, but is outwitted by Colleen and arrested by police after kidnapping Keswick.)

  • Around the Web: Max Allan Collins named grandmaster by MWA, more – Adventures in Writing December 10, 2016 (1:27 pm)

    […] has collected her own list of best writing articles. Here’s an article from Screenwriting U on ways to name your characters. While all the articles are helpful from a technique standpoint, this article from Script Magazine […]

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