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.
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.
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.