How to Write Good Character Names in Your Screenplay
I think we can all agree that character names matter. Even Juliet, who once posed the question, “What’s in a name,” followed it up with “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...”
And if Shakespeare is too much for you, think about your favorite movie characters of all time. Chances are, their character names stand out.
Jules Winnfield. Michael Clayton. Indiana Jones. Curly Sue. Jackie Brown.
What I’m trying to say is unique names for characters matter.
Today we’re going to talk about good character names, first names for characters, Disney character names, character name generators, and all things fictional character names.
So let me introduce myself… I’m [Cool Name for a Character]!
Good Character Names
You’ve written all the action in your screenplay, and you’re getting ready to write some character descriptions and character names. So how can you pick a good character name?
And what even makes a character’s name good?
There are two factors to creating a good character name:
The character’s name is emblematic of who they are on the inside and out.
The first letter of your character’s name is different than every one of your other characters in the rest of the screenplay (or pilot).
Cool Character Names That Begin With Different Letters...
Because I’m feeling crazy, let’s tackle #2 first.
When it comes to cool names for characters, brainstorming can feel like an uphill climb. But I like to think about who will be reading the script.
When I was reading and doing script coverage for production companies, I would go nuts when screenplays or pilots had numerous characters that shared similar names.
I read one where a group of friends was named Sally, Saul, Simon, Bea, and Bart. It was MADDENING when it came time to review it because you couldn’t keep anyone’s names straight.
Readers are excited and interested in characters when they can differentiate them from other people on the page. Creating similar character names stacks the odds against you.
Even aside from personal preference, when you’re writing, especially if you’re using intuitive screenwriting software, it’s easier to keep track of people on the page with different character names.
Now let’s tackle the much harder part, coming up with cool character names.
First Names For Characters
As you know, we like to start at the beginning, which is a very good place to start.
Who is your character?
Then ask yourself about their personality and circumstances.
Someone aloof and rich would need a character name befitting of a king.
And someone down on their luck and emotional will need a character name that matches too.
Let’s start with an easy one. Forrest Gump.
Forrest Gump is a great name. Sure, he was a character in a book first, but let’s diagram how the movie makes his character name special.
For one, it’s a movie based around him. And he introduced himself a ton. Which is always funny.
Also, Forrest Gump’s name tells us a lot about the South and how he was raised.
His mother named Forrest after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general in the Civil War and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Yikes.
BUT his mother goes on to say his name to be a reminder that "sometimes we all do things that, well, just don't make no sense.”
So we immediately see that racism doesn't run deep in Gump. Even if it governed the world around him at the time.
Good Character First Names
I think that simplicity works best when it comes to character’s first names. I try to take into account all the TV shows I watch.
Seinfeld, Friends, It’s Always Sunny, You’re the Worst, Atlanta, This Is Us - all those shows have character names that are short and punchy.
They stick out.
Jerry. Elaine. Dee. Charlie. Ross. Monica. Earn. Darius. Van.
Not to be a total nerd, but these names are also typable.
I think you could even dive in a little, and say that the way each person is named creates a type of character we derive from the name.
Randall on This Is Us is a total Randal. He’s calm, goofy, a little strange, but loveable.
Edgar on You’re The Worst is as weird as the name Edgar. Nuff’ said.
Is there a difference between male character names and female character names?
The quick answer is “no.” The same strategy applies to each gender, but I want to include one caveat.
A lot of times when I’m reading scripts and there’s a prostitute, stripper, or some other lady of the night, they’ll name them “Trixie” or “Cherry” or the most popular….”Cinnamon.”
Look, these sometimes can be funny, or interesting, but I care much more about the complex character you put on the page than I do the female character name you think is funny.
So concentrate on getting the story and characters to be compelling, and save what you think is cute for the next pass.
Okay, back to first names...sort of.
What about characters who go by their last names…
Like Schmidt, Goldberg, or even...Newman!
On second thought...Forget Newman. Let’s talk about Kramer. His last name is his first name (for the first six seasons) until we find out he’s named “Cosmo!”
Last names for character matter!
Last Names For Characters
When it comes to giving a character their surname, I try to establish a vibe.
Maybe I pick a famous Jazz musician, or scientist, or just an artist I like — something to give the person flare.
Or, maybe you’re working on something where their last name defines the principles set up in the movie.
I’m talking about stuff like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Godfather, where a family’s ethnicity plays a key part in the plot.
No matter what, remember that the last name matters even outside of your imagination.
When I wrote Shovel Buddies, the family in it had the last name “Harlow.” But when we went to shoot the movie, our lawyers said we had to change the last name to something more common, because there were only a few families named “Harlow” in the area.
So I scrambled and was given a list of acceptable character names. Ultimately we went with “Hanes.”
It didn’t change the movie at all. But it was a wild part of cool character names and something I never thought could happen.
I was lucky all my first names passed the test, and that my last name wasn’t an integral part of the plot. ...like it would have been in Meet the Parents...
Funny Character Names
Generally speaking, outside of fantasy, most interesting character names come from comedies. That’s not me saying the name “Michael Clayton” is not interesting...but on its own, it is kind of bland.
Michael Clayton is interesting because of who he is, not because of his name.
But Gaylord Focker is interesting because of his name.
And so is Bluto. And Oda Mae Brown. And Dr. Evil.
When you're writing a comedy, names matter, they’re not just ways to get people to laugh on the page, but they can be points in your plot, reveal homages and only aid in the tone and believability of your world.
Again, I take you back to Meet The PArents. Where We know the Dad is trying to get Greg's MCAT results. Having an international spy unable to track them down doesn't make sense, but adding insult to injury always works.
Also, when everyone finds out Greg’s real name, it’s the first time we see sorrow in DeNiro’s face. He genuinely feels back for Greg’s character name.
And there’s some hope from the audience it will reconcile them.
Disney Character Names
One thing that I think Disney gets right (or write) is that Disney character names always stand out. Now, a lot of that has to do with them using ideas from books, fables, and the public domain.
Still, they are coming up with their characters inside those fairy tales that are great. I love the movie Tangled, and I think the character of Flynn Ryder is smartly composed.
Flynn Rider is a great Disney character name.
We know a lot just from reading it on the page. He’s supposed to be slick, suave, and a master thief. What the story does so astutely is juxtaposing his name against his characterization.
He thinks he’s all of those things, but he’s just a goober.
His arc is almost living up to his Disney character name.
If you look at Pixar and Disney’s collaborations, you can find some great insight into the characters based on their names.
First up, Nemo and Marlin.
This is a movie about fish, so it’s incredibly witty and smart to name one after a famous sub captain, and the other after a much larger fish.
These are all genius ways to imbue character names to evoke a certain tone and feeling.
Villain Character Names
So we covered the Disney character names, now I think it’s time to check in on villain character names to talk about how hard it is to create characters.
As crucial as a hero’s character name is, a villain’s name needs to strike fear.
Or make you laugh, Like Fat Bastard.
So what’s in a villain’s character name?
Hans Gruber is a good place to start. We can tell right away he’s not American. And while he poses as a terrorist, and then turns out just to be about money,
Or what about a name like Darth Vader. It's hard to separate the name from our images of him, but that dude sounds scary.
Just like Cruella de Vil. Whose last name is very close to "devil."
When you're creating a character name, treat it just like you did when trying to think of cool character names.
Circumstances, monetary holdings, and attitude.
For every Captain Hook, there's a Smee.
Character Name Generator
But what if you can't get creative?
There are resources all over the internet called random character name generators, that aggregate names from all over the internet. They pair character first names and character last names together to help you create unique character names.
I find them to be cheating, but if you are hard up on cool character names, I guess you can give them a shot.
But you're not making me proud while you do it.
Behind The Name is a website that helps you find names within the ethnicity you're writing. So if you're trying to come up with an Ethiopian character, and have no idea about Ethiopia, check there!
This Fantast Character Name Generator will help you get all your sword and sandal names down.
And finally, this Character Name Generator has lots of options to generate character names in many different genres.
Again, the best part of writing is making things up. So try harder!
Summing Up Good Character Names
I hope you've had fun coming up with good character names with me.
Remember, the only reason to sit and write something is to have fun, so if you're going nuts coming up with names, just type a random female character name or male character name. You can always come back to it.
Casablanca might be the greatest screenplay ever written, and it stars a guy named Rick, a guy named Sam, and a woman named Ilsa. I guess the name Victor Laslo does pop off the page...no wonder she went to America.
Anyway, character names matter, so put in time, effort, and they'll come to you.
We hope to see you at our Free Screenwriting Seminar.
Post your favorite character name in the comments!