Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Name Game

You want to do everything possible to make your characters memorable and compelling to readers and audiences, so why cram your narrative worlds with Johns and Susans?

Of course, you can go too far with this. I remember seeing a Julianne Moore movie in which her name was Telly.

Telly? Isn't that a muppet?

A device I often use is to take some key aspect of the character or their place in the story and let that suggest the name. Hell, any trick that's good enough for Dickens, the Restoration dramatists, and the makers of Max Payne is good enough for me.

Some examples from my scripts:

(Caveat: No disparagement meant for people who have these names but not these characteristics!)

Val, short for Valerie. Horror heroine. Valiant, valkyrie.

Bridget. A two-fer, since this character is inflexible (rigid, stringent) and sexually cold (frigid).

Lance. Easygoing guy, loose where Bridget is not. Also a little dreamy, not very grounded in real life.

Fay. Seductive world traveler. More dangerous than she first appears, like faerie, Morgan Le Fay.

Roger. A scoundrelly, womanizing Englishman. A play on the British slang meaning of the word.

Galen. A twist on Gawain, the knight. The character is honorable, noble, and plays fantasy games.

Neva. A similar twist on Guenevere.

Abigail. Buttoned-up, prim, religious.

Reyna. Powerful CEO. Reign, and reine is French for queen.

Clayton. A man of substance, figuratively and literally, but also weak, feet of clay.

This works with surnames and full names as well: I named a character Tim Pritchard because that suggested he was a little untrustworthy and kind of a dick, which he was. And Palmer Sykes just sounds like a child molester, doesn't he?

Other techniques...

Many BATTLESTAR GALACTICA characters have a regular-sounding name spiced with something more fantastical, often pulled from ancient history or mythology. Karl Agathon, Kara Thrace, Sharon Valerii, Gaius Baltar. A neat way to suggest sci fi without all those damn apostrophes that apparently we'll all be using in the future. Qapla'!

And for horror stories or thrillers, I'm reminded of the Bill Cosby routine where you should name your kid something that yells well down the block, that is, doesn't end in a consonant. Compare the bellowing-into-the-haunted-basement possibilities of "FRANK!" and "BILLYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!"

What are your own methods for naming?


Shawna said...

Wow. You actually put thought into your names. Here are some of my more recent ones:

Meredith - She's an evil lesbian. The show I specced -- the creator's name is Meredith (yeah, google it, you'll figure it out). I seriously doubt she is an evil lesbian, but I thought it was kinda funny to use the woman's name in my spec. I also hate Grey's Anatomy, so it's my own personal way of hating the main character.

Derek Thorpe - a guy I knew in high school. I always loved his name, so I subconsciously used his name for a very manly character in my pilot. Realized where I got it from when I was going through some papers one day. (Total coincidence)

Colin - was looking for a British name that implied priggishness and I had already used Nigel in another spec. May have to change his name anyway, because I have too many people who have a 'C' or 'K' at the start of their names. Gets too confusing to read in the spec.

Rick Braden - this one I did think about. Rick Blaine was Bogart's character in 'Casablanca'. Bogart also played a cop named 'Mark Braden' in a smaller film called 'Crime School'. I wanted the character to be very much a cross between these two characters as sort of a disaffected cop...hence the name. (Yeah, I'm kinda proud of that one)

Robert Selig - I asked a friend to think of someone they hated and give me their first name. I then asked someone else to think of someone they hated and give me their last name. I put the names together for a child molester. Yeah, kinda stupid, but I was stumped for a name.

Warren said...

Great post. I've been giving the a lot of thought lately as well, as a few names in my script have changed for various (non story related) reasons. Like screenwriting in general, the naming process seems to be both an art and a science.

I have one chatacter that's been named "Gertie" for several drafts, and suddenly this week it became very clear that she should have a much more assertive, "in your face" name. She's now called "Poe", short for Polly or Pauline. I don't know where it came from - just materialized from thin air and felt right. So for me, it's sort of a mixture of finding a name that has the right sound, tone, rhythm, and/or style, making sure that it has the right meaning, and then crossing my fingers that it works on the page. The one thing that I do know is that when you do find the right name for a particular character, you know it.

Happy New Year by the way!

Bill Cunningham said...

Names I've used:

ROGER LYMAN - he will screw you over and lie to your face with such charm that you can't help but fall prey...

ANTOINETTE - a Britney Spears styled singer/actress/celebrity whose face seems to be plastered everywhere for no particular reason.

WILL ARCHER - he keeps going no matter what, and he's a "straight arrow."

ALICIA WITNEY - smart but stubborn. Uses her wit to soothe herself over the fact she's allowed herself to be screwed over so many times. Named after a great serial director William Witney.

Then there's henchmen, who I often define by their weapon of choice: GUN, SABER, LASH, STAR, STILLETO, etc...

DET. ANNE KIRBY - a 40 yr. old female detective in Hollywood... and her partner...DET. ROBERT LEE - a 30 yr. old rookie detective.

I leave it to you to figure out where I got those names from....

Patrick J. Rodio said...

I don't have much of a process for names, but I do pay attention to them. I've used a lot of Jacks & Joes (average guys).

I had an antagonist in a script I wrote a few years ago called Callus McHatred.

In one of the scripts I'm writing now, which is about a family, their names are: Hoyt & Liz (the parents) and their kids - Barnaby, Ian, Gabe and Sara.

just me said...

I guess the whole "stripper name" game isn't real a real intellegent answer. (I think I spelled intellegent wrong.)

I usually just go through the newspaper. There's always too much newspaper in my apartment.