Screenwriting: How to Write the Character Name

In screenwriting, a character's name gives an audience the first glimpse into their nature. Even without seeing the movie, who would hire a babysitter named Hannibal Lecter? Done properly, a name puts an image inside the minds of the audience, giving the writer something to build, or a way to shock by doing something opposite from the image. Because of this, the perfect name can be difficult to find and may require multiple attempts before success is achieved.

Introducing Characters

When characters are introduced, their names should be in ALL CAPS, followed by their age and a visual description. For example, "HAN SOLO (31), a dashing space pirate who'd be willing to steal your heart while transporting your stolen goods, all for the right price of course."  Remember, only important characters need formal introductions. The bartender can just be, "BARTENDER," or "BARTENDER (50)," if age is important. However, for minor characters, less information is generally better as to not steal attention from your leads.

Complete Character Names

Every character should have a first and last name. Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, well Darth is a title but close enough. I have heard this directly from producers as well as screenwriting teachers, even though it is the rule most likely to be broken. Yes, the Man with No Name from Clint Eastwood's westerns is a memorable character, but new writers should follow this rule.

All the names in a script should look different. It is recommended that the names of all major characters begin with different letters so readers will not be confused. For example, Indiana, Marion, Belloq, and Sallah are easily distinguishable. Indiana, Irene, Issac, and Imani may cause confusion. One easy way to lose a reader is to create confusion, and a lost reader will ignore your script.

Picking the Right Name for the Character

Now for the most difficult part; in screenwriting, character names must be unique enough to stand out while being familiar enough not to feel weird. The textbook way of saying this is that character names must be appropriate for the character. Also, actors have to want to play characters with the names you pick. An actor might not want to play someone names Stuart since it sounds weak, especially compared to a name like Jack. Of course, that leads to a proliferation of characters named Jack - Jack Sparrow, Jack Bauer, Jack Bristow, Jack Dawson, Jack Dalton, Jack Sheppard, and so on. So, for new writers, picking a less commonly used name may help it stand out.

Of course, the reason certain names are used so often is that they convey the idea that the writers desire. It is much easier to imagine a swashbuckler named Captain Jack as opposed to one named Doctor Jones, or especially Han. However, writers have succeeded at both.

Overall, good writing can transcend any rules or guidelines on character names, but the best screenwriters know when to push their luck and when to follow convention.