Q&A: Naming Your Characters
Q: When I first introduce a character into a story, must I always give his or her last name? Is the first name enough? Must I name the character at all, or can I just refer to her as “our hero” or by her function (“…then the executive walks up to her boss and begins to…”)
A: Names of characters in stories are like the names of acquaintances in real life – the better we get to know them, the more important it is we know their names.
In a speech, presentation or marketing tool, identifying the hero of your story by his or her first name is sufficient, unless the story is about a famous person, or about someone you are purposely acknowledging as a courageous example or as the source of valuable information.
In screenplays, the major characters should all be introduced by their full names (all in UPPER CASE the first time we see them). From then on, you should consistently refer to them by either their first name only, or their last name only, both in the action, and above their dialogue. But minor characters, or those whose identities you are purposely keeping secret to create curiosity and mystery, can be called by their function or some visual clue you’ve revealed in the action, e.g. COP, TODDLER, TATTOO or MASKED MAN.
Novelists should almost always introduce recurring characters by their full names, and from then on by just their first names.
Hello Michael: Thanks for your insightful advice. I select names for my characters that are strong, i.e. Blake Stewart, or Lloyd Bennett, Marcela Montero, that fit the story.I Show their traits through their actions, and personal voices.
I am still a newbie screenwriter, but I came by my method of naming my characters naturally. I use the formula you describe, but generally for the purpose of the screenplay (and the benefit of the director and other production folks) I use both first and last names and sometimes their title (major, chief, captain), official or not, or occupation (stevedore, tout, religious fanatic, etc.) when I introduce the characters if it helps the story. Where do I get my names? They are all names of individuals from my personal ancestry. Because they are my direct ancestors and thus I am them and they are me, I am relatively safe in using their names without fear of being sued.
I work with spoken word story (freeform storytelling) and written fiction (not film).
Curiously, many traditional folktales don’t name the main character(s). It’s ‘the prince’ or ‘the wife’. In a traditional story form, you’re often working with archetypes not fully formed characters. We don’t need or want to know how they blow their nose or which bus they take to work. The point is, can they answer the riddle in time to slay the dragon?! You’re not telling a story about individuals but about human behaviour – hence there are hundreds of tales about ‘Jack’, of which his adventures up the Beanstalk are possibly the best known. ‘Jack’ is never a real person; he’s a likely lad, the best and worst of us, the essence of a bright young man.
But it does make a different to my spoken word stories if I’m talking about (eg) King Arthur or Sir Gawain. One is well meaning, chivalrous, good hearted and a bit pompous. The other is chivalrous, handsome, kind and a bit of a flirt. Well, that’s my take on those characters… Without their names, I’d be in a hopeless muddle.
A name has huge power. (Not just in old magic…) A name conveys social background, era, culture, a whole heap of below-the-line information about that character. Especially if that character has chosen their own name, eg The Joker.
I suggest that a name helps a writer (performer) focus in depth on that character.
So what is a ‘full name’, for film purposes? I don’t know. I do know that I use a first name only for my stage name – just like a lot of pop singers – and I endlessly tangle with editors who refuse to write about me unless I give a family name. I have to take them aside and explain, quietly and brutally, why I prefer not to associate with my ‘family’; the back story isn’t nice and I do celebrate being my own person…
No doubt you have good reasons for wanting your main character to have no known name. But simply from practical script writing p.o.v, this is awkward. However, the name your character is given doesn’t have to be their *real* name… Oh dearie me no… How much fun – how much can you tell your audience? – through the use of titles, nicknames, game names and suchlike?
Thanks for addressing this, Michael. I was just wondering about this very thing. I have a secondary character who will play an important role in the story. She’s a police officer named Daniela Rodriquez, Dani to her friends. My protagonist will interact with her in a professional setting but is a civilian herself. My question is whether my main character will continue to call her Officer Rodriguez, or if Dani will suffice? I don’t want to diminish the integrity/character of the Officer, but Officer Rodriquez is a mouthful to keep writing, LOL. I’m also not sure what would be customary at a crime scene (kidnapping with FBI involvement as well). Any input would be appreciated.
PJ – If you’re a screenwriter, and you want your reader to think of her as Dani, then introduce her into the script as DANIELA “DANI” RODRIQUEZ (UPPER CASE the first time only), or else write DANIELA RODRIQUEZ – “DANI” to her friends. Then refer to her in the next sentence or two of the action as Dani, so the name is locked in the reader’s mind. If you’re a novelist, just introduce her as Dani, and reveal her full name when it’s appropriate to the story – such as in a roll call at the police station or when first addressed by a superior. As to her full name, or “Officer Rodriquez,” being a mouthful when said repeatedly: if that happens you either have way too much dialogue in your script or novel, or you’re having characters address each other by name far more often than people do in real life. Hope that helps.
That; is how you give the names of characters on the screenplay but how does one do it in the dialogue without being stilted? One almost has to create artificial situations to give the audience the characters names. It’s easy when there are natural situations like “Get Henry” or parents giving children;s names comes up easily but how many times in day to day circumstances do we even mention our friends names when talking to them. Writing this I can see this is the part of the craft of screen play writing – going back and forth from the screenplay (as read by the reader) and the audiences viewing the movie. Why is there this rule that in the screenplay you can’t acknowledge someone is writing it as the reader certainly knows it and the audience never reads (or almost never) the screenplay ?
Jim – If I understand your concern, this is rarely an issue in screenwriting. You’re correct that you should avoid having characters repeatedly address each other by name in contrived ways (see my reply above, or my Misdemeanor: Addressing Characters by Name). But your reader will know who they character is, even if his name hasn’t been announced in the dialogue, because characters in any scene MUST be mentioned by name in the action. And it won’t be an issue for the audience, because their looking at an actor playing a character, and they’ll wait to find out that character’s name whenever it’s appropriate for you to believe it. Such as having him say, “The name is Bond. James Bond.” The reason there’s a rule about acknowledging you’re a writer within a story is because to do so would jerk the reader out of the world you’ve created and back into the real world, thus destroying the emotional involvement you’ve worked so hard to create.