Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How to name names

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post because I just can’t shut up.

Rebecca P asks:

How do you come up with character names when you're first creating characters? It is very important to have a memorable name that suits the character, which I think has been done brilliantly on the shows you have worked on. Do you pull them from people you actually know? Flip through books until you find an interesting name?

The short answer: All of the above.

Memorable names are important and a lot of factors go into my thinking when naming characters.

Names should fit the characters. First off I want the names to be age appropriate. Not many teenage Chloe’s in the ‘50s. Not many teenage Agnes’s now.

If I was doing a period piece I might not have the British Empire ruled by Queen Heather.

I try not to give girls boys’ names because it can be confusing to the reader. No Sam’s or Max’s. Likewise, I don’t assign girls’ names to boys. No Jan’s or Leslie’s for dudes.

I avoid multiple names that start with the same letter. In any one script I won’t have a Steve, Seth, and Stan.

To make my characters more distinctive I shy away from very common names like Joe, Sue, or Bob.

But I also don’t want the names to be too unusual. Eustacia, Doraleen-Jo. Unless… the character is proud of having a unique name and that’s part of his or her character. I once had an Ottalie in a script. Also a Persephone.

I take a character’s background into consideration. Is he from a blue-blood family in Newport, Rhode Island? His name probably would not be Clem. Is he a redneck from the Everglades? I don’t think his folks would name him Ulysses.

Certain names fit certain personalities based on people I identify them with. And certain names have almost become synonymous with certain personalities. Bambi is a bimbo. Nordling is a nerd. I avoid those.

Last names are even more challenging. Ethnicity and religion can be defined by the last name. Not a lot of Kentucky hillbillies named Goldberg.

Authoritative characters tend to have strong names. Steele, Mason, Wainwright.

I don’t want all my characters to have uncommon last names. A few yes but sprinkle in a Henderson or Baker in there too.

Another consideration is number of syllables. I like names to have a good flow. Two syllables in the first name and one in the last name or vice versa. Kim Cooper. Darnell Page. That’s not a hard and fast rule but I always say names out loud before assigning them. Are they pleasing to the ear? Are they easy to pronounce? Long tongue-twisting names can be a problem unless you specifically want that. Perhaps it’s a running joke that no one can pronounce or remember someone’s last name.

I don’t like first names to end with the same letter as the beginning of the last name. Kevin Nance. Cheryl Lane. I don’t like the first and last names to blend.

I won’t use Adolph.

I admit that there are certain names that I like and use on several occasions – mostly girl names. Laura, Lauren, Linda, Wendy, Susan, Beth, Dana, Rachel, Diane, and Andrea have found their way into several of my scripts.

I don’t want the names to be too long because I don’t want to stumble over them while typing. Hey, I’m being honest.

Where do I get the names? I’ve talked about this before. I’ve used names of people I know, old girlfriends, ballplayers. I have high school annuals. If I hear a great name I’ll write it down and save it. And now I’ll just go to a Facebook friend’s page and if they have thousands of friends I’ll scroll through them in search of names.

Picking the right name is important and worth spending a few minutes to get right. But I caution you: you could also spend five days choosing one name. Don’t. It’s a trap. Take a few minutes then pick one. And hey, now with find-and-replace, you’re not locked in. You can change your mind and two or three clicks later you’ve got your new moniker.

You’re welcome to use Ken, unless he’s a doll with no genitals.

THE COMEDY DEBATE CONTINUES.   Here's Earl's rebuttal to my rebuttal.   Not sure where Hillary or Bernie stands on this issue.  I was watching the Dodgers-Mets game.

44 comments:

Daddy Background said...

Evan Hunter as Ed McBain would have characters talk about this in his own books. Heroes are named after saints: Matthew, Steven. People names were rhythmically either "Frere Jaques" or "Eleanor Rigby" (Stephen Carella, Meyer Meyer).

So what if it isn't true. I liked his books and I miss him still.

Jim S said...

"I won't use the name Adolph." Makes sense, afterall the last name might be Menjou.

A great name has a life of its own. In Justified everyone knew who Dewey Crowe was. And it was always Dewey Crowe. First and last name. Great name, great character.

Curt Alliaume said...

It drives me nuts author John Green claims he named a character in Paper Towns Lacey Pemberton because he "just liked the sound of it." Or it could have been, during his formative years, Card Sharks had a dealer by the same name (she's now casting director on The Bachelor). Book editors might want to Google names to be on the safe side.

Stoney said...

I'm dying to know where the name Lillith Sternan came from.

BTW, I picked Stoney after Stoney Stevenson in "Between Time and Timbuktu"

Bill Avena said...

I like the way Parks & Rec characters kept referring to their local martyr as Larry, Jerry or Terry. Kind of like different manifestations of a Hindu god. They abused the hell out of that guy like it was a holy ritual.

tavm said...

Of fictional characters named after a month of the year, I've noticed a lot of Aprils lately like one on "Parks and Recreation" and "Mistresses" and I also know one is on "Grey's Anatomy" though I don't watch that one. It's a name I'm very familiar in life since it's the name of a girl I knew from elementary school who blossomed in high school so much, I ended up having a massive crush on her during the three years we both attended!

Bryan W. said...

When I was 18 with my first checking account, I sent you $50 asking you to name a character after me on an episode of Cheers. You sent the check back to me with a kind note. I was just a dumb kid, but it was worth a shot.

Lou H said...

If I'd been an L.A. resident in the 1990's, I'd never have taken the X-Files seriously.

Carol said...

When I was a kid and playing with my friends, a good hour could be spent coming up with the names of whoever we were going to pretend to be. We did that a lot when we played Charlie's Angels (hey, I was a kid in the 70s) because we didn't want to be the actual Angels (then the entire day got spent arguing about who had to be Sabrina) so we would have to come up with suitable names. I was Brandy for awhile. Don't ask me why.

I have a question/request. Is there a special television writers club that you all go to? Because if there is, can you find the new showrunners of Castle and give them a smack upside the head for me? for 6 years Castle managed to avoid the usual 'oh we have to reset the romance for stupid reasons' trope, because the whole point of the show really is their relationship and how it grew, and now these new people are 'oh we're bringing back the Castle and Beckett people love'. No you're bloody not. You're setting up a ridiculous premise that makes no sense because you think your viewers are morons. Stop it.

My real question is WHY DO THEY DO THIS? I know there's that 'Moonlighting Curse' but I swear more often than not it's because the writers think we can't handle new things. Castle was so good at writing them like actual people who know how to communicate and now...arugh.

Michael said...

In one of Dick Cavett's books, he talks about how, in a particular joke, twelve was a bad number but fifteen was perfect. He also mentions that he was writing for The Tonight Show when Groucho was guest host. The punch line to a joke he wrote was, "You could have fooled me." It worked ok, but Groucho said, "That needs a soitenly in there," as in, "You certainly could have fooled me," and the joke worked much better. Sometimes it's that simple ... and yet it's complex. So it is with names.

I think of W.C. Fields. "Egbert Sousé. Accent grave over the e."

Stoney said...

Ken, gotta ask about Mary Brenner in "Mary"; named after David, right?

Stoney said...

A huge hit song from 1979 was the inspiration for the name of a character in a show than ran on USA from 2002 thru 2009. Anyone?

Rinaldo said...

On the principle "not having multiple characters on a show start with the same letter" -- I was always mildly puzzled why The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a Mary, a Murray, and a Marie. Identical except for the first vowel (and one accentuation). Initially I figured they were planning an episode somewhere down the road, where one person's name would be mis-overheard as another's, and wacky misunderstandings would ensue. But it never happened. Do you know anything about this? It seems a weird choice if writers are at least a little vigilant about this sort of thing.

On Lilith Sternin: I was surprised at her name, and the more so when she later mentioned her Jewish family background, as the name's primary historical association is in Jewish folklore (not in the Bible itself) as Adam's first wife, the "she-demon." It would be like parents naming their son Satan or Lucifer.

Stoney said...

In one "Cheers" episode we learn that Woody Boyd's middle name is Tiberius. Now, that HAD to come from the reveal that it's also the middle name of Captain James Kirk.

Paul Dushkind said...

That's a lot of self-imposed rules, Ken! It's amazing that you remember them all.

I've been bemused by the all the generic, Anglo-Saxon names on TV. ER had Bob Greene, Doug Ross, Susan Lewis. They had a Rachel Greene, and so did Friends. Star Trek had the heroic-sounding James T. Kirk.

There are exceptions. On LA Law, I liked Benny Stulwicz, because he was one of the few characters on TV with a normal name. But he was a goofy mental retardate.

To put it another way, there is no way somebody named Benjamin Stulwicz could become captain of the starship
Enterprise.

Another thing that puzzles me is the practice on TV and in the movies of giving female protagonists male names. Yes, a lot of Maxes and Alexes. It seems like a vestige of the pre-feminist attitude that a strong female had to be mannish. Any thoughts?

Hillman said...

Tell that to George Lucas who got the idea that Anakin Skywalker could be called "Annie" for short!

Charles Emerson Losechester said...

This was the exact same topic of a hilarious SNL skit from 1990 or so where the host of a small chat show was interviewing a television producer ("The thinking man's Aaron Spelling") played by Kevin Nealon. He went on about all the distinctions he uses to name his characters in his cheesy cop show "Smart Streets", but does so in the most ham-handed obvious way with regards to ethnic names. Then they show a dramatization featuring Corbin Bernsen as the "tough cop" and Dana Carvey as the Latin American stereotype drug dealer, all dropping names and speaking in ridiculous fake-profanity. Ah, TV.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

True Detective's second season, flawed as it was, did get one thing right: the character names. I certainly won't forget names like Raymond Velcoro and Antigone Bezzerides.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I thought we had this discussion before, haven't we? I seem to recall a posting about the process of naming characters . . . come to think of it, it seems like we've discussed this quite a bit; I know, Ken, that you've said you and David tended to name characters after baseball greats, or in many of your cases, people you know (i.e. Linda Nugent and Patty Haven being named after former girlfriends).

I know I've said this before, but I tend to give my characters names you don't hear very often (for fictional characters, at least), or names that seem to just match their design and/or personality. In the case of the former, I've recently given a new character a name that apparently is a rare one because it's not even listed on baby name sites (and nobody knows of its origins), yet it feels like it should be a common name.

Mighty Dyckerson said...
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Nevin ":-)" Liber said...

In other words, you would never use a name like Sam Malone... :-)

Stephanie L said...

Nice! Could this be the topic for your next book? A baby naming book advice book from a television comedy writer.

tb said...

That rebuttal from Earl is a rambling mess

Roseann said...

But never forget that once you find a name you like as the writer, the Clearances/Legal Dept has to get ahold of it and run it thru many databases. The databases that find criminals, other people with that same name, scofflaws and a million other problems. Then you find out you can't use the name you finally picked because the network will get sued by the owner of said name. They will often give you ND options, i.e., the most milquetoast versions of the name you picked. It's amazing how Legal can destroy your fine work.

Paul Dushkind said...

I think that the rebuttal from Earl was quite cogent.

Donald Benson said...

How did Bambi get to be a girl's name? Bambi is a BOY deer who grows up to become a studly stag, fighting for his mate.

I remember a Paul Sand sitcom where he was set up on a date with a bus driver named Bambi. Sand was influenced by memories of the cartoon character with big eyes; another character warns him "This is not the same Bambi." This Bambi turned out to be your standard attractive sitcom woman who had a lot of dumb bus jokes but was otherwise very appealing. I wasn't sure if she was being introduced as a regular or the original script had a female Ralph Kramden who scared the execs.

I'm still waiting for a male Bambi to turn up. In a workplace comedy: The males get excited about a visiting consultant named Bambi, assuming from various clues a hot bimbo. Bambi turns out to be a guy -- a bit pugnacious about his name, which he has to explain constantly. He also turns out to be a ladies' man, so the females who were grumbling about a Bambi are suddenly his biggest fans. Maybe something on the theme of how slutty female traits can still be attractive "bad boy" traits.

True life footnote: It turns out the boy who voiced Bambi grew up and spent several years in the Marines. For most of his adult life he saw fit to conceal his claim to fame.

Diane D. said...

Fascinating topic! I think all of your general rules produce the best and most memorable names--that's probably why I like most all of the names used in your shows. Names are sort of ridiculously important to me, and I'm not sure why. It may be because I grew up in a very small rural southern town, and even as a child I found most of the names embarrassing---Patsy Gayle, Tommy Gayle, Virginia Lee (my best friends), Billy Jo, Bobby Mack (cousins). Those are first and middle names and they were called by both names. Oddly enough, on the maternal side of my family, we had beautiful names--Elizabeth Diane, Kathryn Denise, Adonis (my grandfather). I was very thankful for that when I moved to the north at age 16---dealing with the accent was bad enough.

Dan Ball said...

There's a Goldberg's Bait, Tackle, & Taxidermy chain of convenience stores up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"Not sure where Hillary or Bernie stands on this issue. I was watching the Dodgers-Mets game."

I have a co-worker who is a big Mets fan. I told him today the ultimate nightmare for all Mets fans will be a tie game going into the bottom of the ninth - not unrealistic given deGrom and Greinke are pitching. Who gets up to hit pinch-hit, walk-off HR? Utley! I can hear the screams from Queens now.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"I admit that there are certain names that I like and use on several occasions – mostly girl names. Laura, Lauren, Linda, Wendy, Susan, Beth, Dana, Rachel, Diane, and Andrea have found their way into several of my scripts."

I'm kind of the same way, and likewise, I too have developed characters with the names Laura and Rachel, the latter of which is one of my favorite girl names.

Conversely, however, whenever I use a name once, I try to avoid using it again. Hanna-Barbera has been guilty of this before: they have two Freds - Flintstone (THE FLINTSTONES) and Jones (SCOOBY-DOO), and two Daphnes - Blake (SCOOBY-DOO) and Gilfin (THE SNORKS).

Buttermilk Sky said...

Stoney, is it "My Sharona" (MONK)?

MikeN said...

Wasn't there an Alex on Wings?

"Never use Adolph"
So first you attack Kentucky hillbillies, and now you hate on Coach Adolph Rupp.
Or is it Adolphus Busch?

Cap'n Bob said...

So you don't like the name Bob, eh? Well, there are a lot of us and we vote.

By the way, if you refuse to use Adolph, you aren't slighting Hitler. His name was Adolf.

Donald Benson said...

Harpo Marx's real first name was Adolph, but with the rise of Hitler he changed it to Arthur.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

In the long-running Canadian sitcom The Beachcombers, Nick Adonidas's, (How's that for a name), boat was named "The Persephone".

Mike Barer said...

In the 60s it was very common for the character to use the Actor's actual (or stage) first name with a different last name. That was revived recently with "Whitney".

Tom said...

What is your opinion on the name "Sumner Sloane" from Cheers?

Justin Russo said...

Benito. Mussolini.

Janice said...

"Hi, I'm Larry. This is my brother Daryl, and this is my other brother Daryl."

Diane D. said...

Janice
That is surely the funniest running joke in all of sitcom history. I laughed out loud every time that scene was played out!

Janice said...

I agree, Diane! Comedy gold right there. And truly original.

Gerry said...

You know for years there was a female character named Alex on no fewer than four Law & Order series. I always wondered about that. Was it a coincidence? Market research? The name of Dick Wolf's mistress?

My wife is a tremendously talented playwright who just completed a trilogy of historical stage plays. In the last one, she had characters named J.J., James, Jane and Fain. I made the gentle suggestion that they were kind of too similar. She took exception to that, but eventually changed J.J. to Virgil. It definitely helped. A little.

Greg Ehrbar said...

The names on Dobie Gillis were clever. Some--but not all-came from Max Shulman's short stories, like Thalia Mennenger. But in a sitcom era of fairly standard names, this show gave us Maynard G. Krebs, Zelda Gilroy, Milton Armitage, Chatsworth Osborne III and Leander Pomfrit (a twist on 'french fries').

I always liked the sketch name Steve Martin sometimes used: Gern Blanston.

Exotic Beauty said...
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