March 10, 2017

7 Ways to Introduce a Character's Name to the Audience That Don't Sound Fake

Superbad McLovin intro
Introducing character names in a movie sucks. Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin offer tips to make it suck less.

One of the most unnatural things a screenwriter does is find a way to introduce a character's name to the viewers of the film. This sounds like the most basic thing to do, but people who already know each other in real life don't keep repeating each other's names when they talk to each other. This is so basic that screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin had never even covered it in any of the 290 episodes of Scriptnotes until one listener finally tweeted this simple question:

August and Mazin tackle this naming question in Episode 291 of Scriptnotes, which you can listen to below. Jump to 10:25 in the podcast to hear their discussion.

When it comes to introducing character names, Mazin can't stand it either: "Here’s the thing. It’s all annoying. I hate it. It’s one of my least liked parts of screenwriting because it always feels artificial."

So, the trick is to introduce a character's name to the audience in the most natural way possible. August and Mazin share seven ways you can introduce your character's name that don't feel incredibly fake.

1. Write a conversation with more than two people talking

When more than two people are talking to each other in a scene, take the opportunity to say a character's name to clarify who someone is addressing. This naturally points the audience's attention toward the character and will likely set up a cut to that character's face after the name is mentioned to underscore the direct address.

2. Show the audience the name

Character's names can appear on desk nameplates, office doors, business cards, even billboards if it makes sense for the character. Just be careful because showing a character's name can seem forced, too, so be creative.

Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman and Walter White
Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in 'Breaking Bad'.Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

3. Place characters in settings where their names get called out

Names are called out in waiting areas every day, so if your character needs to see a doctor or has an appointment for an audition, use these opportunities to introduce their names. But don't just write a scene in a waiting area purely to get the name out there. That's boring. And being boring is much worse than not revealing a character's name.

4. Use phone calls and text messages to say your character's name

Whenever you call someone new on the phone, you have to introduce yourself. Whenever you call a friend who has your number saved in their phone, they typically answer by saying your name. Phone call scenes in your script give you a great opportunity to introduce a character's name in a natural way. Your characters don't use the phone anymore because all they do is text? No problem. Character names can appear above incoming and outgoing text messages.

Identity Thief Melissa McCarthy
Of course, sometimes the name a character uses on the phone may not be their own. Melissa McCarthy in 'Identity Thief', written by Craig Mazin.Credit: Bob Mahoney/Universal Pictures

5. Have two characters talk about another character by name nearby

If having a character state her name outright in an introduction feels too clammy to you, concoct a scene where two characters talk about a third character nearby and use her name out loud as an alternative way to share the name with the audience. Again, when the name is mentioned, this will be a natural cut for the editor to show the third character out of earshot of the conversation, letting the audience make the connection between the name and the face.

"The truth is I have no problem writing a script where nobody ever knows somebody's name. In fact, I do it all the time. Here's the crazy part: usually, people don’t notice."

6. Never mention the character's name

Okay, maybe this suggestion doesn't actually accomplish the stated goal, but sometimes, you never have to mention a character's name because honestly, the audience doesn't really care. I struggle to remember the names of the main characters of most movies even right after I have seen them, but I can describe the character accurately enough to have a conversation about the film afterwards. 

Mazin puts a finer point on it: "The truth is I have no problem writing a script where nobody ever knows somebody's name. In fact, I do it all the time. Here's the crazy part: usually, people don’t notice."

7. Write a memorable scene that is all about a character's unique name

Of course, if you give your character a truly memorable name, make a scene out of the character's introduction so no one can forget the character's name.

Do you have suggestions on how to introduce a character's name to the audience in a natural way? Do you have any favorite character name introductions? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Featured image: Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera in 'Superbad'. Credit: Columbia/TriStar

Your Comment

7 Comments

8. Let the character introduce himself as V.O.
LESTER (V.O.)
My name is Lester Burnham. This is
my neighborhood. This is my street. This... is my life. I'm forty-two years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead.

March 10, 2017 at 6:55PM

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Frank Luchs
Writer/Director
202

During a conflict, people is more likely to call other people by name because they want to put emphasis on their interlocutor:
- "You know what's wrong with you Michael? You don't care about anyone but yourself"
- "No, Jane, I didn't drop the damn Ming vase. Now excuse me but I have better things to do than listening to your hysterical ravings"

March 10, 2017 at 8:07PM

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9. Don't worry about introducing their name and just let it flow naturally into the scene without pushing it in there for the sake of putting it in there.

The fact is your script is about telling a story. Sure a name could totally add to the story, but as the many problems pointed out above is that pushing it into the script for it just to be there is a terrible call.

So unless a name is integral to the story, just let it flow in when it is time.

Generally, I think it would be next to impossible to get past the first set of conflict without a name drop. As most people start calling people by name when they need more attention/emphasis as Vincenzo stated below.

Though a name is a great tool for story telling. Shaun of the Dead is a really good one. As Shaun is a pretty average name which really reflects well on who Shaun is in the beginning of the movie. And they really don't have the silly questions and just show his name on the movie title, his name tag, or when people talk to him personally.

The really big deal is, just do not over think its use. If going to break the story for a trivial piece of information, then it is probably not worth it.

It is actions and language that really tell the audience who a character is. You can use the name as a hint to those things, but it should not be the only thing that points down that direction. (unless you are just trying to be funny)

*Trailers are great for bad name dropping so that you can introduce the characters and worlds without really butchering your script*

March 11, 2017 at 1:53AM, Edited March 11, 1:55AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
633

Start with characters who don't know each other. At some point, it will be natural for one of them to introduce herself. Or, as in Strangers on a Train, one of the characters can be a minor celebrity, and the other wants to get to know them. In that film, the antagonist is so weird that he has his name printed on his necktie.

March 11, 2017 at 10:31AM

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Curtis Polk
Principal
260

How to introduce Character names: See Guy Ritchie.

March 11, 2017 at 10:39PM

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Liam Tain
Head of Creative
112

10. Have two characters meet for the first time. When you're meeting someone for the first time of course you introduce your name.

March 13, 2017 at 8:57PM

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The Mellow Filmmaker
Filmmaker, Editor, Videographer
95

How apt is Number 6. Watching Patrick McGoohan in "The Prisoner" last night, his character Number 6 escapes the Village (for a while) in "Many Happy Returns". He gets back to London and meets people who he knows very well, yet because of the premise of the show, they are unable to use his name.

See also Adrian Edmondson as "I'm Billy Balfour, the Man with No Name" in "A Fistful of Travellers' Cheques"

March 17, 2017 at 1:59PM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
1110