Posted by: steveonfilm | April 11, 2009

What’s in a name?

One of the biggest problems I encounter when writing is coming up with character names. I’m terrible at it. I tend to use the same names over and over again. Or at least I find myself doing so and then change them.

For example, the name Rachel. I don’t know any Rachels. I can’t remember knowing any Rachels growing up. But any time a female character is introduced into a story I’m writing the first thing I want to do is call her Rachel. There’s probably some underlying reason to that, but I haven’t the time, or reason to find out why.

In a basic critique of a writing sample I posted up, Dusty said, “First….memorable names. Ryan, Kevan, Big john [and Drew] are not memorable names. Unless you make them memorable. But I’d like to see some trendsetting names here.” Truth be told, Ryan, Kevan, Big John and Drew are just names of some of the guys I hung out with in college. I’m only using them because I have no idea what to call the characters. But I didn’t want that to stop my writing. So, I’m almost using them like variables in an equation. As a mental reference Ryan equals main character. Big John equals sort of main character’s friend. Kevan equals skeptic member of team. Drew equals reliable member of the team that can’t be trusted to make decisions.

The problem I have is, as Dusty put it, coming up with “trendsetting” names. What the hell is that? When I think of my favorite movies I don’t know if their names count as trendsetting. Robert De Niro’s character in HEAT is named Neil. John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski is named Walter. Bruce Willis character in Die Hard is named John. Jon Favreau’s character in Swingers is Mike. I have to get into movies by Tarratino before I get unique ones like Julius, Vic, Marsellus, and Vernita.

So how crazy should you get with names? I mean, what defines a “trendsetting” name? Is it the last name? The first name? Both? How important is it? What makes a name like Flannigan better than Murphy? Or Kellog better than Pete?

How do any of you approach this?




  1. Usually I come up with a story behind a name before I give a name…

    For example this just came to my head so bare with me.

    Kevan used to work for his dad who was a contractor. Kevan didn’t want to do the carpentry job, but his dad made him earn an honest living because lets face it, Kevan found other ways to support himself, unfavorable to his father. One day while working, Kevan loses a finger with a saw. Bloody, messy, nasty. Well, that ended Kevan’s work relationship with his father…his father never brought it up again, felt bad about what had happened, and never hassled Kevan in his alternative ways of making money. There’s nothing like a father’s guilt. However, one of Kevan’s favorite past times was to be a thief. I mean this guy had the fastest and most nimble fingers in the heisting market. Anything that required dexterity and skill, Kevan was the man. In fact, he was faster with 9 fingers that most people would be with fifteen. And that’s how he got the nickname “Fingers”, because, well, he had 9 of the fastest and most dexterous fingers a thief could ever dream to have. I mean, it was almost like he cut off that finger on purpose, to prove to everyone how good he could still be….like that Drummer from Def Leppard. And so on, and so on…

    So, you refer to him as Kevan “Fingers” ____________ in the beginning, but his character name is “Fingers” throughout the script. That’s memorable.

    And if you must know, my dad had me working for him summers in between school semesters, and I nearly cut my index and middle fingers off my right hand one day, had to race to the hospital to get them sewn back on – I wasn’t allowed to have pain killers because they had to sew the nerves back together…. – and I thought, great, I’m gonna lose a pair of finger and will have to write with 8 fingers now. So you can kinda see where my thoughts came from. (I’ll ask my brother to tell you the story when we hang out, pretty funny stuff – he ran me to the hospital)

    But create a story as to how they got their name, and you’ve got a memorable name. This is more difficult and not even necessary for your typical drama or romance, but for a heist….oh its perfect.

    And everyone remembers Walter Solchek from Big Lebowski because The Dude says his name like 50 times throughout the movie. Just like everyone remembers poor Donny in Lebowski because Walter’s always yelling at “Donny”, using his name…which makes it memorable, otherwise Donny was persona non grata to me in that movie.

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