Five Tips for Naming Characters
Start with your ABCs.
You want each character in your screenplay to feel as distinct as possible. A simple way to help with that is to use a different letter of the alphabet for each character. We’ve all had the real-world experience of being one degree removed from someone’s friends, and suddenly confusing names for similar ones. (“It was her friend Jenn… or Jan? … June?”) Mix up the length of names, too. Name your characters Jenn, Jan, and June, and your audience will undoubtedly be more confused than with Jenn, Andie, and Cordelia.
Extra hint: Screenwriting software such as Final Draft or Celtx can have auto-complete functionality, so that if I type ‘c,’ the software fills in ‘Cordelia.’ This is a huge help to keep the typing of dialogue flowing. It’s such a big deal that when I write a project, I keep a list of letters of the alphabet, and every new character I introduce must be named using one of the remaining letters.
Use a Baby Book.
Try writing down a thousand names, as fast as you can. You’ll run dry soon. Switch to naming all the people in your graduating class, and you can knock out a hundred or more very quickly. Human brains just don’t store information in big lists, accessible when we want. But baby books do, so consulting one will increase the number of names you can think of a hundredfold or better.
Extra hint: Actually, go with a baby book web site, since it’s searchable (and free!) My favorite is The Baby Name Wizard, because it’s interactive and displays the relative popularity of a name as you enter it. Another very helpful resource is the U.S. Social Security Office’s Popular Names Listing, which gives you the top 200 most popular names, in order, by decade. That can go a long way in giving your script a proper sense of time.
Include Some Unusual Names.
A unique name is the first an easiest thing you can do in creating a unique character. It can go a long way to lifting a character to potentially iconic status. Rocky Balboa, Scarlett O’Hara, Indiana Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain Jack Sparrow, Ace Ventura, Pippi Longstocking, Forrest Gump, Ferris Bueller, Sugar Kane Kowalcyck from Some Like It Hot, “Ducky” from Sixteen Candles, Barbarella, Sherlock Holmes… Would any of them have been as compelling or memorable if named ‘Mary’ or ‘Tim?’
Extra hint: Don’t expect the name to do all the work, of course! Good characters are built much more on likes, dislikes, strengths, and most importantly good old-fashioned flaws.
Don’t Include Too Many Unusual Names.
If you name one of your characters something as unusual as ‘Spock,’ you’d best name his friend something as common as ‘Jim.’ When one or two names are out of the ordinary, they become more memorable. If too many things are out of the ordinary they get muddled together, and become less accessible to the general populace. Very few could name more than a couple of dwarves from The Hobbit.
Extra hint: Nicknames allow you to stretch the rule of thumb here, especially if they are not used by all the characters. If you used up your unusual name on ‘Spock’ you can still add uniqueness with ‘Scotty’ and ‘Bones.’ Nicknames lend a sense of familiarity and likability. Plus, they’re more memorable. Sure, you can’t do those hobbit dwarves, but can you name most of Disney’s Seven Dwarves?
Don’t Spend Forever.
While you eventually want your characters’ names to be just right, you don’t need names in place to start writing. I have blown entire days doing nothing but brainstorming character names, only to still be unhappy with them later. Screenwriting is a process of months, and something will come to you.
Extra hint: Use a placeholder name that’s easy to find-and-replace with software later. For example, don’t name a character ‘Will’ until you mean it; replacing the name ‘Will’ could mess with every time you’ve used the word ‘will’ in your script. As a placeholder, you can call your characters things like AAAAA, BBBBB, and XXXXX. Software won’t get confused later, and you can take full advantage of typing only a letter as you enter dialogue.