ON NAMING CHARACTERS
Here are a few loose thoughts on naming characters. Admitted, it’s mostly a lot of “what not to do,” but when you read a lot of scripts you’ll see some common tropes and missteps.
* If our character is the protagonist of an action movie, detective thriller, or other story in which he’s meant to be a tough guy, it’s better to avoid the cliché of calling him something like Jack Slade or John Stone. Sure, we get it; the geological last name implies solidity, the J-sound first name provides contrast. But simply put if I pick up an action script and the hero’s name is something like Jack Stone, the chances of being otherwise free of cliches and stereotypes is very low. This trope is common enough to be made fun of in the classic comedy STONE FURY.
* Screenwriters seem to love assigning masculine nicknames to female characters. The most common is Samantha; “Sam” for short. If a script is going to play this card, there is a 50% chance it’ll be a Sam. (Full disclosure: I wrote a Sam into a horror spec way back in the ‘00s, before I knew better). The runner-up for most-common name is “Alex,” short for Alexandria or its variants; Alex appears maybe 40% of the time. I’ve seen a smattering of other choices round out the other 10%, for example “Charlie,” short for Charmaine, Charlotte, etc. Why this nickname thing is so common, I do not know.
* We want names to be easily pronounceable. The pronunciation of the name should be clear from the spelling. If we have to sidebar to explain the pronunciation of a character’s name, it would be better to take that same energy and just come up with a simpler name. I have discovered that if there is even a tiny possibility that readers will misunderstand or mispronounce a name, it’s certain they shall. For example, way back in film school I wrote a short with a character named “Jacqui.” I thought it was commonly understood that this name was pronounced like “Jack-ie,” but both the director and actors referred to her as “jhah-KAY.”
* In regards to the ensemble as a whole, it’s better to change up the names so each has a chance to pop on the page. For example, I have seen a lot of scripts that include characters named John, Jon, Jack, Jane, James, Jim, Tim, Tom, and so on. They too-easily blend together on the page, especially if the readers are skimming and/or otherwise not paying super-close attention (which should be the default assumption). If the readers have to expend energy flipping around and reminding themselves of who is who, we’re doing something wrong. As much as possible, make each name unique.
* On the flipside, I’ve seen scripts strive so hard to give characters unique names that they become ridiculous. Our small town detective doesn’t need to be Pierre-Germaine Quackenbushenstein in order to be memorable.