Naming Characters

When writing dialog it’s important to give each character their own voice. What often happens is we begin writing before our characters are sufficiently developed and they all end up sounding alike. This can be worked out in rewriting, but until each character comes to life they usually all sound the same.

For me, characters start to come to life as soon as they have a name. It’s a starting point. And while it is possible to write a script referring to the main characters as GUY and GIRL, giving them names makes them appear more realistic. But this raises an immediate problem for writers: where do you come up with good names?

Over thinking names can get you into trouble. It’s tempting to go for something with a lot of meaning. But when you take a movie like The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), which has character names derived from The Bhagavad Gita you are lining yourself up to alienate a lot of readers. Good names are ones that sound like real people and can actually tell you something about them. A good example of simple yet symbolic names can be found in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987): Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Their names suit their relative social statuses, but watch the film again with the names in mind and Fox and Gekko take on a deeper layer of meaning.

Sometimes choosing names quickly can help you get started quickly. There is a cool random name generator at that gathers names from the U.S. Census Bureau. It never fails to spit out believable and interesting sounding names. I only have a couple problems with it. It’s somewhat limited to American sounding names and it’s based on census data from 1990. So it’s not exactly up to date.

Recently I’ve been working on a new script that has a lot of characters. Fortunately, I found a great new place to explore randomly generated names. It’s the junk mail folder. Most of the names there are pieced together from software that tries to make the names sound real and believable. And that’s exactly what I am looking for. Now there is actually a reason to reread the headers on junk mail.