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.
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.
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?