30 Days of Character Development: Naming Your Characters

Unlike parents, who name their children before ever meeting them, writers can name a character after they've explored their psyches. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares tips on naming your characters.
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Unlike parents, who name their children before ever meeting them, writers can name a character after they've explored their psyches. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares tips on naming your characters.

To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here. The post is updated with every new tip so you can keep track of all the character creation advice.

What's in a name? Everything.

Just ask QT. Read this article on "Quentin Tarantino's 50 Best Character Names, Ranked," and you'll see some insights behind the uniqueness of his character names. 

Pulp Fiction: Vincent Vega, Butch Coolidge, Pumpkin/Honey Bunny, The Gimp, Zed, Marsellus Wallace, Winston Wolf, Esmarelda Villa Lobos

Kill Bill: Hattori Hanzo, Beatrix Kiddo, O-Ren Ishii, Gogo Yubari, Sofie Fatale

Django Unchained: Calvin Candi, Django, Broomhilda Von Shaft

You get the point. Yes, there's a "Bill" in Kill Bill, but it would be odd if there wasn't. I mean, Bill needs to be killed.

DAY 12: Give your main characters a name.

Go back and look at your notes of your main characters, exploring all the work you've done so far, even their job titles. What is the most unique name you can come up with that reflects your character's traits and personality that isn't Tom, Dick or Harry? Not that Dirty Harry didn't serve that name well. 

Think of something original, or appropriate, for your main characters, as they tell your story and are on screen the most. Those are the characters who will attract actors.

But don't overdo it by naming every character something that is so off-the-wall that a reader will be scratching their head. Save the really usual names for the really unusual characters. You can also take a unique surname and pair it with a simple first name, or visa versa. 

Then, say the names out loud and see how they roll off your tongue. You don't want to appear gimmicky by picking crazy-ass names for every single character. 

Do some research. Open up a phone book. Look through your old yearbooks. Hey, there might even be someone at your day job with an awesome name you can use!

[Script Extra: What’s in a Name - Title vs. Character Names]

When are "boring" names appropriate?

 The obvious answer is, if your character is intentionally boring. But there are other times  when a "boring" name might actually be the perfect name. 

In a previous article on Script, Drew Yanno wrote the following: "One of my favorite examples of this Harrison Ford’s cop’s name in Witness—John Book. John couldn’t be more ordinary. Probably the most ordinary of first names for men. But the surname Book isn’t ordinary, at least as a last name. Plus it seems to have a few associations with the character in that film. Recall that Book is pitted against some corrupt cops. Compared to them, he goes “by the book.” Then again, he roughs up a suspect and beats up a guy when he is disguised as an Amishman. In that instance, he doesn’t go by the book. And, of course, cops “book” suspects. On top of all that, Book is a strong sounding one-syllable name that the writers wisely chose to use in description and dialogue instead of “John.” And, oh yeah, it both sounds and looks good."

What characters need names? 

When you're writing the first draft, minor characters will appear, like a waitress or cab driver. Those characters do not need to have specific names because they don't participate in the overall story. Every time you name a character, you're telling the reader, "This person is important, so remember them." Or a named character implies a new subplot. Someone bringing scrambled eggs to your protagonist's table isn't worthy of a subplot. 

A character in only one scene does not need an actual name. But think how you can add some personality to them, just in how you label them. If you have a scene where your protagonist encounters several prisoners in a room, but one appears nervous, anticipating something that might immediately happen, you could describe them with an adjective, like Jittery Prisoner, to let the reader know to pay attention to them, at least in that scene. My mind immediately can imagine the body language and actions of this character, even if they don't say a single word.

Bottom-line: If a character is going to be in more than one scene, give them a name.

Finally, don't confuse the reader.

Try not to use the same first letter of the name for multiple characters. If you have a Jim, Joe and Jonathan in a scene, the reader will easily be confused. It can be difficult to keep track of characters, especially in the first few pages, until you get in the groove of the story. 

With so many names available, there's no reason you can't pick ones that differ. That is, unless you're doing it on purpose, like Larry, Darryl, and Darryl in the show Newhart

Play around with this one and have fun! 

Next up: Avoiding Cliché Characters and Actions

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here.

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