Wednesday, 12 November 2008

What's in a name?

Hi readers (assuming there are any), I thought I'd spend a few minutes talking about character names. When writing, it's got to be one of the first things that you think about, right?

Most people probably don't think too much about names, and I don't know when I started, but I believe they're very important when it comes to the writing game. A name can say a lot about a character, literally in fact. Let's say you were watching a movie and you came across a character called Judas. No doubt you'll be thinking "Hmm...something fishy about this bloke. 50 quid says he's going to betray someone." Or there's a guy called Icarus. You'll probably be thinking "Gonna go flying are ya? Mind you don't go too close to the sun!" Or Oedipus.....I ain't touching that one! Similarly (and a little less on-the-nose), I've read a few Harry Potter books and the name Albus clearly means 'white', so it's only right that the guy has white hair. Even J.K.Rowling isn't cheap enough to directly rip off Lord of the Rings and call him Albus the White (sorry, just had to get a little dig in at Harry Potter there).

This isn't to say that giving characters names like this is a bad idea. It is interesting to give a character a name that makes people say "Oh, he's going to be this sort of person", then turn their expectations upside down. For example, if a character is called Achilles, everyone will expect him to be an expert fighter and possibly get an arrow in the foot. What you can do then, is make him the complete opposite - turn the audiences expectations around - make Achilles a weak guy who is killed in standard fashion (or maybe not even at all).

Away from the 'names have historical meanings' area, every name means something. The name Neil means 'champion' (something I'm rather proud of). When creating an character, I like to think of what sort of person they are before I name them. If I have an old wise character, I may call them Nestor or something similar. I may name a tyrannical lord Nero, or a strong character; Goliath, Ajax, Spartan or (god forbid) Stone. Get the idea? Names say a lot about someone. So when I come up with a character, I think of their dominant trait, then stick it in this particularly useful tool - Through this site, you can enter a character trait and see what comes up. For example - if you have a character who is a natural hunter, type 'hunter' into the thingy and see what you get.

I like obscure names for my characters; for some reason, ordinary names just don't excite me. I keep a little book of names that I like and to reveal a few, we have Valentine, Gideon, Priestman, Cesar, Kyra, Balder, Attalia, Merrick. These names aren't exactly common, but I feel they add depth to the characters. They become unique, even if the characters themselves aren't. So in a sense, dare I suggest that you can deceive the audience into thinking that your characters are purely original? Of course this ultimately won't work if your characters are blatantly crap, but what the hell!

The great Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly) seems to be a fan of obscure names. Buffy isn't exactly a name you come across often (not before the show, anyway). To me, it seems like a classic blond bimbo name. But alas Buffy is far from that, which is the point of the whole show. Then we have Gunn and surprise, he's a tough guy. If you hear the name Faith, you're probably comforted - she must be a nice person. But when Faith first came into BtVS, she was far from nice. In Firefly, we have a character called Book, and alas he carries the Bible around with him everywhere - coincidence? "Jayne is a girl's name", but Jayne in Firefly is far from a girl. He's about as manly as we get in a TV show. Of course, you couldn't talk about characters in the Whedon-verse without mentioning Spike - what a name! Anyway, enough about Joss.

Thanks for sticking around to get to this point of the post - you're doing well! What I've been trying to say (as you may have gathered) is that NAMES ARE IMPORTANT! My creative writing tutor Linda Lee Welch says so, so it must be true. Basically, take some time to think about the names you give your characters, then you'll know them better and write them better. Also, if you're stupidly bored one day, google character names from some of your favourite films or shows and see what comes up.

(PS - while I'm here, I'd like to direct everyone's attention to the right side of this site, where you'll see a collection of other blogs (very useful, better than mine) and screenwriting resources, including books and software.)

Stay shiny folks



Rach said...

Hi Neil. Welcome to the scribosphere. Interesting read.

I spend ages choosing names. I make lists from a range of books and sites then pare them down. Making sure I don't have two characters with similar sounding names for example.

And I like the meaning of the names to relate to the characters too. Though I tend to either choose old english ones or I keep them really simple. I want the names easy to remember and say.

Neil said...

That's the problem for me - i like these obscure names, but my fear is that when a money person looks at the script, they may be put off cos the names are too complicated/hard to pronounce etc!!

Thanks for the kind welcome!