Peggy Bechko tells writers how to “Name that Character!”


by Peggy Bechko

Name that Character!

Sounds like a game, doesn’t it, but for the writer it’s far from it. If you thought you had a tough time finding a name for your kid, listen up. It can be a far more serious matter to find a name for the characters in your script or novel. (Maybe not to a parent, but certainly to the serious writer.)

It’s all too easy to think of naming a character after a friend, a relative or someone you met once because you happen to remember it.

Um, no.

Consider names can have all sorts of implications. They can denote ethnicity, perhaps religion or where the character originated. The place of birth can have a strong impact on naming. So can the idiocy of parents.

Remember too that cutsy names like Bobby, Katie, Billy and BooBoo are typically used for children. What does it say about the adult character still carrying the nickname BooBoo? What does it say about the character’s parents if he’s named Stewart Stuart?

Names need to fit the era of your story and/or its theme. Names used in the ‘way back’ as in ancient times are different than those used today. The spelling of a name even changes. For example the last name spelled Smith could have been Smyth. Rose Marie might be Rosemary. You don’t have to be downright obsessive, but as a writer thought must be given to the most of important decisions, names.

There are times to use nicknames like Bub, or Shorty, or Babe or Sweetie or Junior (remember Indiana Jones’ father always calling him ‘Junior’?) A nickname can be cute, demeaning, thoughtless, affectionate, you name it.

And don’t forget the possibilities in initials such as JFK, FDR and others as well as a single name use common for singers (like Madonna or Cher) or multiple names like Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Neil Patrick Harris. All have an impact and an identification all their own.

The smart writer also needs to be alert for simple mistakes easily made in a script or novel. Don’t go crazy with either the very common names like Smith, Jones, Brown, or the exotic names like Theodora, Tamira, Angeline. Try not to use the same first letter repeatedly (John, Joey and Jackson). And skip complicated, exotic spellings. Really. They’re just distracting. Using unique names will also help dispel any confusion the reader might fall into. Weird spelling not so much.

Finally, consider the fact that the reader (or the movie-goer) associates names with their own experience and you can’t account much for that, but we also still have a lot of stereotyping associated with names. Maybe even more so with the world getting so much smaller. Think about what comes to mind when you hear Bertha, Bulah, Lily or Mohamed. Do the names Delbert or Gomer or Adele bring any images to mind?

Then there are families who name their children after such things as flowers (obviously mostly girls) like Buttercup (remember the Princess Bride?) Lily, Violet (and on and on) or after gems like Pearl, Ruby, Amber or simply Jewel.

Don’t forget the names that could be a he or a she and don’t use them too often such as Taylor, Lee, Madison, Francis. Yes, I know frequently the spelling can be different for the male and female versions of the name, but it can be confusing and distracting and don’t forget when a movie is made there is ‘spelling’ only in the script.

Naming a character can be, at times, daunting, but the search can also be great fun until that perfect name clicks in an ‘ah ha’ moment that makes you smile.

Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.