Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What's in a Name?

To me, a sign of a good screenplay is when a viewer walks away from a screening and can remember at least a couple of the main characters’ names. This is especially important if your script becomes a Hollywood studio film because star-power will only make this more difficult. Take Jim Carrey. If I’m talking about his character in “Yes Man,” I’m probably going to refer to him as Jim Carrey.” “Remember the part where Jim Carrey went running on Red Bull?” I mean, he’s Jim Carrey, and it’s hard to forget it. But he’s also in my favorite movie of all time: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” This is the first time ever where I actually forgot he was Jim Carrey, and I refer to the character in conversation by his name: Joel.

I first noticed the importance of this way back when “Independence Day” was in the theaters. The characters as I perceived them were: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, the President, a bunch of aliens, that guy, and that other guy. Not a sign of strong characters. Granted, a film like “ID” is more plot-driven than character-driven (actually, it was probably money-driven), but that’s no excuse for weak characters to drive the plot. “Law & Order” is the most plot-driven show on television and I can name you every character from the first ten years.

Bringing the topic down to a personal level: I used to love coming up with character names. Back in my college student-film days, I cranked out some of my favorite character names ever. I had a few personal rules to follow: make the lead’s name somewhat unique but believable, and try not to repeat a first-letter in the same script (in other words, I can’t use two names that begin with “B” in one project). These were my little tricks to making the names more memorable, and for the most part it worked.

It was a little harder to name characters in “Purgatory Comics” because by this point, all of my favorite names were already used up in college. The first name I had was “Berner,” because I actually knew a Berner in college and I liked the name. But when I decided on the whole “Purgatory” theme, I thought it would be cool to have my lead (Cola) around characters with names that rhymed with “Heaven” and “Hell.” So, I came up with “Evan” and “Mel.” “Mel” of course would be Berner’s first name, and Evan was the comic store owner played by Tim. Coming up with the lead was more tricky. Originally she was a he, and his name was Caden. Over time, I no longer liked this name so I changed it to Cole. Then when I decided to make the lead a female, I took a quick shortcut of making the name “Cole” feminine. Thus, Cola. At the time, I declared Cola to be short for “Nicola,” a name I ignorantly thought I made up.

When it got time to do the side characters, I took more unconventional approaches. Mia was named after my beloved cat (who, over a decade ago, was named after a character in a video game I was playing at the time). Danny was taken from my own middle name. Realize at the time I had also planned to play Danny in the movie, which I can now see would’ve been a very “meta” move. X-Ray was obviously a pun on the Ray character making himself a member of the X-Men. The rest of the names are pretty standard: Peter, Andrew, etc.

So how did it all work? Well here’s a quick consensus based on feedback I’ve gotten over the last year. Everyone remembers the name “Berner” to some degree, even if they spell it “Burner.” I think a couple of people referred to him as “Burger” at some point too. Most but not all people remember Cola. Everyone remembers X-Ray. And the rest is 50/50: sometimes it’s names and sometimes it’s “the old guy, the boyfriend, Berner’s girl, the store owner.”

I’ve been working on the plot of a new script for nearly a year, and I’ll be honest, I’ve been hung up on some names. I have a female lead name, and I have a handful of possible names for other characters, but it’s certainly a roadblock I’m not used to. There is an added pressure that my working title has the main character’s name in it, whatever it turns out to be. I’ve resorted to downloading a free “baby names” app on my iphone. By the way, the best review for this app is when someone wrote “I use this app to name my Sims characters.” After considering this script for so long, it’s finally itching to be told and I’m anxious to begin writing. I’ll post a logline and title soon, but in the meantime, back to the name game. Yes, it’s that important.

1 comment:

Angela said...

Verity is a popular name for a girl in England.