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How To Name Your Characters in a Screenplay

by ScreenCraft on September 26, 2016

Naming your characters in a screenplay can be a difficult process.

There are countless factors to consider and the wrong name can completely change the tone of a character. Here are a few tactics that can help you find the perfect name for your characters.

Tactic One: Consider the time period

When choosing the name of your character you should always keep in mind the historical context. For example, if you were writing a screenplay about a Roman gladiator, you wouldn’t give him a modern name like Jaden. Rather, you could utilize your access to technology to Google “popular names during Roman times” or simply “Roman names” to find a name to your liking.

Tactic Two: Use the setting to your advantage

This tactic applies more to the science fiction and fantasy genres because within these genres it is more normal to be named after elements in the world. For example if writing about a world where magic exists you might name a witch Aura, meaning the supernatural radiation surrounding a person. Or a wizard could be called Gadlr, which is the Norse word for incantation.

Tactic Three: Allusion

This may seem like cheating, but if you wrote a character who is similar to another character from a classic novel or play, you could simply give them the same name, or some sort of variation. For example, if I wrote about a young girl who was given a large sum of money from a random person, pulling her into the upper class, I might name her Piper -- a nod to Pip from the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. This is by far my favorite tactic, because it is a cheap way to add depth to your character and makes you seem cultured.

Iconic characters bring powerful associations to mind. See some examples of transformative roles in Singular Alchemy: 3 Scripts That Reinvented Movie Star Personas.

Tactic Four: Significance

Most names have some sort of meaning behind them. With the help of a baby naming book, or even just a search engine, we can find a name that will be suitable to describe a character. All you have to do is find a name that fits a major personality trait or plot point for the character. For example, if I wanted to name someone who was evil and cunning, I could Google “names that have evil meanings” or “evil names” or even “cunning names,” to find the perfect name to fit that character.

Tactic Five: Lost in Translation

Explore other languages. Following the same formula as tactic four, but instead of typing into a search engine “personality trait + names” you could go to a translation website and type in the trait in English, then see if the word in another language seems like a fitting name for your character. For example, if I were writing about a beautiful young martyr who will save her country, I might name her Esperanza, which means "hope" in Spanish. However, if I were to name the evil person who will kill her and change the history of the nation, I might name him Shahin, which means "falcon" in Arabic -- a bird of prey. But also, the name Shahin carries the meaning of the “first light in the world.” Again, similar to allusion, this tactic can easily add layers of meaning to the name of any character.

Tactic Six: Your Surroundings

If you know someone whose name you think defines them perfectly and they are similar to your character, perhaps it makes sense to give your character the same (or similar) name. However, if the character’s story lines up a little too well with that person’s real life, they very well may hunt you down with their lawyer. Therefore it would be in your best interest to name them simply based off their personality and absolutely nothing else, not even appearance.

Hopefully these tips have given you new processes to help you name the characters you have created in your screenplay.

You'll find more tips for presenting characters who will attract talent to your project here: 4 Ways to Create a Character Actors Want to Play.

This is a guest post by Camille Corbett. Camille is a Fulbright Scholar who taught English at Abant Izzet Baysal University in Bolu, Turkey and a graduate of the University of Alabama with dual degrees in English Literature and Dramatic Writing & Directing. She is an up and coming novelist and screenwriter who receives her inspiration from traveling the world. You can follow her on Instagram here.

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