While choosing the perfect title for your screenplay, pilot, or novel can be an arduous task, choosing character names is even more exasperating for most writers. You want major character names to resonate with the audience and fully portray the character’s traits, but you also want them to be unique and memorable — without being too obscure and unrealistic.
And then you have to consider the multiple minor characters in your screenplay — each of which have to be named. And when they are, those names are scattered throughout the whole script in character name headings, scene description, and dialogue.
So you must choose — but choose wisely.
John Smith is too common and doesn’t stand out. Raskell Snotwhyler is too much and needs to be toned down a bit. Clarice Starling, Indiana Jones, and Ethan Hunt have been taken by other movies and represent iconic characters already known by audiences worldwide.
So how do you find the perfect character names for every character in your script — big or small?
Here we offer creative ways to find the best names you possibly can.
Character Name Generators
Let’s start from the bottom of the barrel and work our way up. Many scripts have characters that are either only referred to in the story by other characters or have limited screen or page presence. You obviously don’t need to put too much thought into them, unless they are integral to the story or theme.
In these cases, the best places to go are character name generators — websites that have thousands of names available that are generated in either random fashion, or based on genre, time period, geographical territory, or other more unique subtopics.
Random generators also offer writers a chance at finding a gem that resonates with their main protagonists, antagonists, and villains as well.
The best of the bunch is Fantasy Name Generators, where you can choose from a wide selection of name types — and within those types, you can find sometimes hundreds of options in subtopics.
You can generate fantasy names based on different types of fantasy settings, time periods, and locations.
You can generate real names based on time periods and geographical locations.
You can also search through a wide variety of additional names for groups, planets, places, gangs, etc. There’s even a random generator that offers unique names for arcades.
The sky is truly the limit with this name generator, so when you have to name that random garbage man, mailman, waitress, orc, robot, demigod, pet, Civil War soldier, or Celtic warrior — look no further than Fantasy Name Generators.
Point Park University also has an interactive Character Name Generator that is simple and easy to use, giving you options like species, gender, period, genre and what letter it starts with. Click here to try it out.
People From Your Life
But sometimes you want your character names to be a little more personal. Writers often write not just what they know — but who they know as well. Whether it’s a fictional story, autobiographical, or just a story that has strings from your life woven into the fabric of the screenplay, pilot, or novel, one of the better places to find great names are those that already surround you.
You can homage a friend, family member, or relative by using their names for a variety of reasons and inspirations.
Maybe a character you’ve written was inspired by that strange kid from high school.
Maybe that bully character was inspired by a bully from your youth.
Maybe you had a coach that resonated with you enough to inspire a similar fictional character.
Whatever the reason, some simple but perfect choices are easier to find than you’d think. While you want to avoid using full names — especially if the characters you write aren’t particularly flattering — staying close to home in your search is a good compass.
Phone Books and Cemeteries
They may not really make phone books anymore, but if you can find them, they are a resource with endless possibilities as you mix and match first names with last names.
Cemeteries may seem like a dark and macabre place to look, but many writers have found their best names on tombstones. They range from simple to unique and are just a few minutes away as you walk, bike, or drive through your town or city. And sometimes it can feel like you’re honoring those that have passed.
Famous and Iconic Name Hybrids
Looking to find a strong name that resonates? Why not Cormac Faulkner or William McCarthy, Virginia Austen or Jane Woolf, Neil Lewis or C.S. Gaiman, Bram Carroll or Lewis Stoker, Stephen Steinbeck or John King?
You can choose famous authors like the above examples, or use other notable figures from history, cinema, pop culture, sports, and entertainment. You can match traits and themes found in those famous names and combine them with others to create the perfect hybrid.
Baby Name Websites
Anyone that has had a baby in the digital age has visited a baby name website. It’s amazing to see the endless types of names and spelling variations that are out there.
A simple Google search for “baby names” will take you to endless possibilities. Perhaps the most interesting tool is provided by the U.S. Government — the Social Security Baby Names Background Information page. All names are from Social Security card applications for births that occurred in the United States after 1879. You can search for the most popular names from any decade from that point to the present, which would be an excellent tool for those writers that are writing period pieces.
This website lists popular baby names by Decade, U.S. states, and U.S. Territories. You can look up the 1930s and discover that the most popular name for a boy was Robert while Mary was the most popular girl name. You can then jump ahead fifty years to the 1980s and see that Michael and Jessica were the most popular names during that time period.
To be able to search per decade also means that you can represent the era in which your period script takes place correctly — at least going into the 19th century and beyond.
Meanings of Names
When you inject the themes and traits of your characters into the search of their names, you are going the extra mile as a writer. They often play like cool little Easter eggs within your script — even if you’re the only one that knows about them.
Meaning-of-Names.com is one of the best destinations to find meanings behind both first and last names. The best feature is where you can search for names based on certain key words or themes.
If your character represents strength, you can choose from six pages of names that represent that theme — from multiple countries in both genders.
If you are looking for a unique villain name — one that represents evil — you can find names like Keres (Greece), Ubel (Germany), Div (India), and many others.
You can then click on the names offered and be taken to a description and origin page that details the history behind each name — and even dictates what gender is usually associated with that name as well.
All in all, finding the perfect character name comes down to the perfect storm of research, creativity, chance, luck, and a good ear.
Try to be original when the character calls for it, and practical when originality isn’t necessary. But even then, inject each and every name with a little more meaning. You’ll appreciate those characters more as a result.
If you’re looking for the perfect movie title, check out ScreenCraft’s How to Write Screenplay Titles That Don’t Suck!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies