There are a plethora of movie character names that become everlasting brands in American culture: Rocky, Yoda, Forrest Gump, and Shrek to name a few. And when it comes to naming characters, you want to choose wisely, which is no easy task.
Literature: Lennie Small: the mentally disabled but physically strong protagonist in John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men.
Drama: Willy Loman: the elderly salesman lost in false hopes and illusions in Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman.
Film: “The Dude”: the unemployed L.A. slacker and avid bowler in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 film The Big Lebowski.
Steinbeck’s Lennie is a gentle giant who is “Small” of mind, with a simple dream of tending rabbits. Miller’s “Loman” sounds no different than “Low man”, which is exactly what Willy is – “a dime a dozen” and “not a leader of men”. And the Coen Brothers’ “The Dude” is, as The Stranger explains, “The man for his time and place.”
Choosing the right name for a character is key. It should be unique and memorable to the story, yet not trying too hard to stand out. Each character name you choose should also reveal something about that character: who he is, where she come from, when he was born, how she was affected, why he likes or dislikes it.
There’s a lot in a name, and the perfect name can make a world of difference, so here are some helpful tips – the Top Ten Dos and Don’ts – in naming characters.
THE DOS: CHOOSE NAMES…
Tip 1: That Reflect Personality
Choose names that help to illustrate a character’s personality. Is your character a hero, and if so, what kind: The Professional (Han Solo – Star Wars), The Warrior (Blade – Blade), or The Fool (Captain Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean)? And if she’s your villain, what role does she play: The Seducer (Laure Ash – Femme Fatale), The Destroyer (Maleficent – Sleeping Beauty), or The Psychopath (Jigsaw – Saw series)? Work hard to find a name that reflects the disposition or temperament of the character.
Tip 2: Choose a Name by Meaning
Selecting a name that reflects or symbolizes a character’s role in the story can add subtext to the character. For example, if a character in your action-adventure screenplay is a wise man, mentor, or guide to your protagonist, you might want to consider naming her Sage. And to add even more meaning to the character, you might consider making her a botanist – sagebrush of course being an aromatic plant used as a culinary herb or burned as an incense. Even if you decide not to name a character by meaning, it is wise to look up the literal meaning of all the names of your characters. Knowledge is power, and you never know when a new nugget of information may inspire you.
Tip 3: Make the Name Age-Appropriate
Many writers make the mistake of choosing a name they like because it’s popular now, but the name would have rarely been used at or around the time of the character’s birth. You might love the more contemporary girl names such as Madison, Chloe, or Riley, but if your character is an 80-year-old socialite who grew up among the plantations of the South during the Great Depression, you must choose a name that would have been common during the time of her birth: Virginia, Dolores, or Evelyn, for example. If your character was born in the U.S., browse the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year. And be smart to take into account the character’s cultural and ethnic background as well.
Tip 4: That Combine Common & Unusual
Creating unique and interesting names is one thing, but trying too hard to be memorable or exotic is usually a mistake -unless you’re writing a romance novel (Trent Jasper), soap opera (Logan Hawk), or porno (Seymore Butts). Names like these sound silly, out of place, or just plain forced. A good trick that helps to create a nice balance is to combine common first names with unusual last names (Edward Scissorhands) or unusual first names with common last names (Indiana Jones).
Tip 5: That Fit the World/Period
If you’re writing a historical period piece that takes place during The Spanish Inquisition of 1478, let research be your guide. Investigate the era to find out what names were common during the time, and if your characters have a specific ethnic background, it’s your duty to find out authentic names from that ethnic group. If, however, your story takes place in a fantasy world or somewhere in the future, you still must create names that are believable for the world of the story. If the world is separate from Earth, avoid names that are too closely associated with Earth. If your story is dominated by war, the names you create should reflect images of “strength”, “survival”, and the “warrior” mentality. On the flip side, however, if your characters live in peace and tranquility, their names should be reflective of their environment.
THE DON’TS: AVOID NAMES…
Tip 6: That Are Too Long
So you’re writing a new sci-fi/fantasy feature, and you’ve decided on what you think is an absolutely amazing name for your main protagonist: Archimedes. Considering your hero is a mathematician in this futuristic world, you have applied Tip #2 appropriately. Archimedes was a Greek mathematician c. 287-212 BC. However, when you start writing, not only does it become labor intensive to type the ten-letter name so many times, but it also takes up valuable white space. Solution: use short character names. But this doesn’t mean you have to lose the Archimedes name. Maybe his friends call him “Archie” or even better “A”. There is a reason that Indiana Jones is referred to as Indie throughout Lawrence Kasdan’s script. Short and simple.
Tip 7: That Sound the Same
Have you ever come across that family in which every child’s name starts with the same letter: Jacob, John, Jackie, Jessica, Jeff, Jennifer, and so on. If it’s annoying in real life, imagine the frustration your reader will have when the same naming strategy is applied to a script. It’s distracting and confusing, no matter how distinctly different the character personalities, actions, and reactions are. Another similar pitfall is to use character names that – even if starting with different letters – still sound very much alike, such as Greg and Craig.
Tip 8: That Are Too Weird
Many writers are so focused on giving a character an unusual or memorable name that the end product becomes something more distracting than complimentary to the character or the world of the story. When a character’s name is too weird, it tends to jolt the reader and pull him or her out of the story. The only exception is in sci-fi/fantasy, in which names like Deckard (Blade Runner), Korben (The Fifth Element), and Riddick (Pitch Black) work flawlessly. But can you imagine Riddick throwing a fastball to Deckard, who throws out Korben trying to steal second?
Tip 9: That Use Cute Spellings
There are few things more annoying to a reader than cute little “creative” spellings of a common, ordinary name. Trust me, readers do not find it cute to struggle through the traditional spelling of Chris as Khryss or Dewayne as Dee-Way-N. Just write CHRIS and DEWAYNE, and be done with it.
Tip 10: That End with the Letter S
This may sound like a trivial tip, but sometimes the most banal advice is the most valuable. As the writer, part of your job is to make it as easy on the reader as possible, and if you have character names ending in the letter S, you (as well as your reader) will have a difficult time with the possessive form of that name. Make it simple. No name ending in S = possessive ‘s every time.