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What’s in a name? Mar 21

Brent + Hildred?That Wily Shakespeare

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet makes the argument:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Bollocks to that!

If the play had instead been called Brent and Hildred, or Addison and Payton, or any other combination, I’m not sure it would even have survived for us to study in high school.

A name is part of the package, not separate from it. A great name can make a character, or person, more special. Why do you think Frances Gumm changed her name to Judy Garland, or Mark Vincent changed his name to Vin Diesel?

Name Choice

In screenplays, you only have a small amount of space to introduce your characters. Ensuring they have the perfect names can immediately:

  • give the reader a heads-up as to what your characters are all about
  • help a reader keep track of numerous characters
  • suggest a character’s station or status in life
  • enhance a character’s personality and identity
  • make your main characters stand out from the pack

The Name Game

And why do well-chosen names make characters pop? Because that’s the way it works in real life. There’s a power in an aptronym — a name aptly suited to its owner.

  • Of course Megan’s last name is Fox.
  • Of course Usain’s last name is Bolt (world record holder for the 100m and 200m sprint)
  • Of course Tiger’s last name is Woods (these days his name has a double connotation).

The other night I saw a commercial for a show called “High Society” on the CW network. It’s a reality show about Manhattan socialites and their less than upper crust behavior.

The main celebutante is a woman by the name of Tinsley Mortimer. Tinsley Mortimer! Seriously, could she be anything other than a socialite?

Final Thoughts

Here’s a great quote by George Axelrod (The Seven Year ItchBreakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate) on the subject of character names:

Someone said to me recently, “Computers are wonderful. You can just push a button and change a character’s name.” Change a character’s name! In my opinion, you’ve got to go to court and throw the whole script out if you have to change a character’s name. The name is part of his identity.

H/T to this Go Into The Story post for the quote.

Speaking of Go Into The Story, Scott Myers (I love that guy’s blog!) has this terrific article on character names that I highly recommend reading. In addition to discussing the importance of appropriate character names, he lists some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

The moral of the story: make your names count.

What are some of your favorite character names, or appropriately named people?


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13 Responses
  1. Phoenix says:

    Hey, wonderful article.
    Made my monday.
    and thanks for introducing aptronym to my research times.
    Looking forward to more of your articles.
    So helpful.
    What’s your opinion of the titles –
    1. HENRY AND JUNE
    2. BONNY AND CLYDE
    3. TANGO AND CASH

    Yes creating a title for a script is an art and has to do with “hard luck”.
    cheers,

  2. Trevor Mayes says:

    Hey Phoenix, great to hear it!

    I first heard the word “aptronym” many years ago, but was disappointed by its lack of authoritative acceptance. Glad that the times have finally caught up with that perfect little word.

    The titles you list are quite interesting. On the one hand they accurately tell us who the movie is going to be about, but on the other hand, if “we” (mainstream audiences) don’t know who these characters are, then the story (and interest) might be lost. With the exception of Bonnie and Clyde, the success of movies with these types of titles almost solely rests on the strength of the marketing campaign.

    If you haven’t read it yet, please take a look at this article I wrote on the subject of movie titles. I’m a firm believer in the S.M.A.R.T. principle when assessing a title’s strengths and weaknesses.

    http://scriptwrecked.com/2010/01/21/donut-bagel-and-other-title-lessons/

    Thanks for the great feedback!

  3. Susan says:

    Hmm, what springs to mind?

    Marty McFly. Sounds like a nerdy kid who doesn’t have a whole lot going for him.

    Ferris Bueller. A creative and memorable name for a creative and memorable character.

    Brock Samson. Sounds like a burly bodyguard to me.

    🙂

  4. Trevor Mayes says:

    Agreed — great names!

    Marty McFly – nerdy with cool (“fly”) potential.

    Ferris Bueller — I’d love to know how long it took John Hughes to come up with that gem. Or maybe he thought up the name and the movie followed?

    Brock Sampson – fantastic! I’d never heard of The Venture Brothers. How did I possibly miss that on Adult Swim?! [Rushes to the Netflix web site…]

  5. Susan says:

    OH MY GOD YOU’VE NEVER SEEN VENTURE BROS?!

    You may thank me later. 😀

  6. Trevor Mayes says:

    Are you kiddin’ me? A 9.5 score on IMDB.com? I know I’ll thank you later. The first season DVD arrives in the mail tomorrow.

    Some names I love (both characters and real people) off the top of my head, in no particular order.

    – Angelina Jolie
    – Forrest Gump
    – Donald Trump
    – Pretty much any character played by Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman, Greg Focker, Tony Wonder, Derek Zoolander)
    – Pretty much any character in the Usual Suspects (Dean Keaton, Fred Fenster, Dave Kujan, Edie Finneran, Verbal Kint, Keyser Soze)
    – Pretty much any character in the Harry Potter series (Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley [and Rupert Grint], Draco Malfoy, Severus Snape)
    – Pretty much any character in the Matrix (Mopheus, Trinity, Neo, Cypher, Dozer, Apoc)
    – Donnie Darko
    – Jason Bourne
    – Rocky Balboa
    – Jack Sparrow
    – Crispin Glover
    – King Kong
    – Lady Gaga
    – Andy Dufresne
    – Indiana Jones

    Okay, I better stop now. I think in hindsight this exercise was sorta like trying to pick my favorite movie.

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by roger paul and David Spies, Laura Cross. Laura Cross said: Character Names via Scriptwrecked blog http://bit.ly/doSdL6 […]

  8. […] of . Nov 6, 2008. … White Female, and centers around the idea of obsession and the double. …What's in a name? scriptwreckedHelp, tips and discussion for aspiring screenwriters. … article on character names that I highly […]

  9. turtledove says:

    Allison Jones (an average girl) and Hedra Carlson (an outcast with stalker tendencies, even though it’s an alias) from the original Single White Female

  10. turtledove says:

    Jerry Seinfeld’s name sounds like a funny yet cynical guy

  11. turtledove says:

    – R. Lee Ermey (sounds like an intimidating military officer [which he was])
    – Tom Hanks (sounds like a softhearted funnyman)
    – Bill Murray (sounds like a no-holds-barred critic/cynic)
    – Robin Williams (sounds almost like a fatherly figure)
    – Chris Evans (sounds like the guy you went to college with who could’ve ended up running a company but opted out because it was boring)
    – Zooey Deschanel (sounds like a goofy and adorable girl-next-door)
    – Bruce Willis (sounds like a police officer who’s willing to fight what he thinks are terrorists for the sole purpose of protecting his wife and the company she works for)
    – Zach Galifianakis (sounds like your funny friend who’s got more than a touch of ADD)
    – Leonardo DiCaprio (sounds like a worldy-wise globetrotter/jack-of-all-trades/possible con man)

  12. Trevor Mayes says:

    Agreed! All great ones. It’s hard to imagine any of them with different names.

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