10 Quick Tips for Better Character Names

By Michael Schilf · October 28, 2020

name your characters

Some movie character names seep into pop culture. Rocky, Yoda, Forrest Gump, and Shrek are just a few. But what makes these character names so good? And how can you come up with original, memorable names for your characters?

Choosing the right name for a character is important. 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 comes 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. Here are ten tips to help you name the characters in your script.

25 Best movie character names of all time

Here are just a few of the best movie character names to get the creative juices flowing:

  1. The Dude (The Big Lebowski) — It doesn’t get much better than the Dude.
  2. Marty McFly (Back to the Future) — Classic. You’re instantly on Marty’s side
  3. Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) — If you’re going to have a titular character it has to be a good name. This one is great
  4. Vito Corleone (The Godfather) — Menacing yet authentic. This name gives layers and depth to the anti-hero from the first scene. And the lore builds in the sequel
  5. Maximus (Gladiator) — Sometimes you can just tell audiences your characters are awesome. They’ll agree
  6. Keyser Söze (The Usual Suspects) — A name that keeps you guessing until the very end. Genius
  7. Martin Blank (Grosse Pointe Blank) — A not-so-subtle hint at our hero’s profession and resolution. Fantastic character name
  8. Donnie Darko (Donnie Darko) — Alliteration is a double-edged sword, but done well it’s powerful and memorable
  9. Wednesday Addams (Addams Family) — The perfect “normal” name for a truly unique heroine
  10. Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride) — I mean. C’mon.
  11. Groot (Guardians of the Galaxy) — Like Inigo, if you’re character is going to reference their name, make it good
  12. Peter Venkman (Ghostbusters) — The perfect name for someone charging you for paranormal services
  13. Jabba the Hutt (Star Wars) — Yup
  14. Snake Plisskin (Escape from New York) — Futuristic and crass while charming at the same time. You have your hero
  15. Castor Troy (Face Off) — Is Face Off a good movie? Yes and no. Is Castor Troy a great character name? Absolutely. When you literally swap your character’s identity halfway through the film, you need something jarring to hang onto
  16. The Bride (Kill Bill) — Like “The Dude” but the opposite vibe. And it works
  17. Optimus Prime (Transformers) — Why wouldn’t you use this name? He’s literally the best there is
  18. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) — So creepy. So composed.
  19. Ron Burgandy (Anchorman) — Pure poetry
  20. Darth Vader (Star Wars) — You can hear the Imperial March just reading this name
  21. Tyler Durden (Fight Club) — He’s everything you want to be
  22. John McClane (Die Hard) — Just an average cop, out to save the world
  23. Ripley (Alien) — Quote possibly the best female character name in movie history
  24. Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction) — You want to enter a dance contest with this character. Of course you do
  25. Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmations) — Just brilliant. Cruel devil. There’s nothing wrong with cleverness when it works

Use names that reflect personality

Choose character names that illustrate a character’s personality.  Is your character a hero, and if so, what kind? Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but their names should signal, or at least hint, at who they really are.

  • Han Solo is the quintessential loner
  • Blade from Blade is really good with…well…a blade
  • Captain Jack Sparrow is a bird brain

Names for the villain are equally (if not more) important. Before dashing off a dastardly name, ask yourself: What role does your villain play?

  • The smoking hot, yet deadly “Seducer”: Laure Ash (Femme Fatale)
  • The Destroyer: Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)
  • The Brilliant Psychopath: Jigsaw (Saw)

Work hard to find a name that reflects the disposition or temperament of the character — for heroes and villains.

Choose a name by meaning

Selecting a name that reflects or symbolizes a character’s role in the story can add depth to the character. 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.

But you don’t have to go that far to add dimension to your characters. Even if you decide not to hint at a character’s meaning through their name, it’s helpful to spend time thinking about it. Because when you look up the meaning of all the names of your characters, inspiration might strike. Knowledge is power, and you never know when a new nugget of information may come in handy.

Choose character names from the appropriate era 

Many writers make the mistake of choosing a name they like because it’s popular now. But for a name to feel authentic, it needs to have been popular when that character was born. You might love modern female names like Madison, Chloe, and Riley, but if your character is an 80-year-old socialite who grew up among the plantations of the South during the Great Depression, it won’t make any sense. And audiences will notice.

Choose a name that would have been common during the time of her birth: Virginia, Dolores, or Evelyn. If your character was born in the U.S., browse the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year (it’s a weirdly interesting site). And take into account the character’s cultural and ethnic background as well.

The power of juxtaposition: Combine the common & unusual

Creating a completely original name from scratch is hard. So don’t do it. Instead, a great character naming trick is to simply combine two opposite ideas until you get a name that resonates with you. The most common way to accomplish this is by taking something common and adding something unusual or out of place.

Done poorly, these “combination” names can 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).

Indiana Jones sounds like a totally normal name now — after multiple blockbuster movies — but it’s a pretty odd name when you really look at it. And that’s the point. Combining a state name with one of the most common last names in America turned two dull words into a name for one of the most exciting characters in film history. Go figure.

Just make sure you don’t go too far. Memorable or exotic is all well and good, but you can quickly skew into romance novel and soap opera territory with corny sounding names like Trent Jasper and Logan Hawk.

Pro Tip: There’s a reason why so many screenwriters use place names for their characters. It’s quick, easy, and comes with easily identifiable tropes. A great name like Korben Dallas isn’t an accident. It’s excellent. Use place names in your combinations for captivating character names.

Use names that fit the world and/or the time 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, believable names can be the key grounding element that makes the rest of your story believable. Here are a few simple guidelines for naming out of this world characters:

  • 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 goal with character names is to firmly place each role within your world. They should feel like they’re part of it. Like they grew up there. And something as commonplace as a name helps ground a character’s identity in subtle yet powerful ways.

5 Things to avoid when naming a character in your screenplay

Avoid really long names

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. It was not only easier to say — it was easier to write.

Don’t use names 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. It’s tough to keep them all separate. And that’s a big problem in a script. Above all else, character names should provide clarity.

Don’t add needless distractions and confusion just because you like a name. If one character’s name is too similar — or worse rhymes! — with another character’s name, change it. Audiences will associate and even confuse the two characters no matter how distinct and different their 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. Do your best to sidestep this avoidable character name fails.

Avoid (really) weird character names

I like weird names. A buddy of mine named “Christian” doesn’t go by “Chris.” He goes by “Chun.” And it’s awesome. But he’s constantly explaining what his name means, and that’s a problem.

A lot of writers are so focused on giving a character an unusual or memorable name that the end product becomes something more distracting than interesting. And that’s no good. Because when a character’s name is too weird, it tends to jolt the reader and pull him or her out of the story.

Again, exceptions exist, especially in sci-fi and fantasy genre films, but tread carefully. For every great name like “Deckard” (Blade Runner), “Korben” (The Fifth Element), and “Riddick” (Pitch Black) you have a Cypher Raige (After Earth). Don’t force it.

Don’t use “cute” character name spellings

There are few things more annoying to a reader than cute little “creative” spellings of a common, ordinary name. 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.

Don’t use character names that end with the letter “S”

This may sound like a trivial tip, but sometimes the most boring advice is the most valuable. A big part of screenwriting is clarity. You need to make it as easy for people to read your script. And that means avoid character names that end in the letter S.

“S” makes a name look plural or possessive, which is difficult when you’re reading a script. Make it simple. Avoid names ending in S and you’ll be one step closer to a great script.

How to name characters in your script

There are no hard and fast rules for naming a character in your script. You can do whatever you want. But use devices like combining uncommon words with common ones, avoiding like-sounding names, and hinting at your character’s personality to help you create the best character names you can.

The right name can make audiences — and producers — care about your characters. Spend time finding the right name for each character and build a world where they belong. Good luck!

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