Thursday, October 22, 2009

How we come up with character names

TGIFQD – Thank God it’s Friday Question Day.

Scottmc asks:

How much thought goes into a character's name? (Some feel that in 'The Odd Couple' Neil Simon already had his Act 3 joke in mind when he came up with the name 'Felix Unger'.) Sometimes a show can be on for years before a joke, or episode, about a character's name is used-was the joke always there?

Selecting names is always a bitch. We go out of our way not to make them jokey. We don’t want to take the audience out of the show by giving a character a silly name. The only exception is when in BIG WAVE DAVE’S we named a character Jack Lord. But that was clearly someone taking the name and we even had an explanation as to why he chose that pseudonym.

Many times we’ll use names of friends or people we know. Several of my former girlfriends have seen their names appear on shows my partner and I wrote.

We never use a name expecting to do jokes off of it but sometimes it happens. We named Charles Winchester’s sister Honoria. I went out with a girl named Honoria in college. I asked if she went by a nickname like Honey or something and she was very offended. I was to refer to her as “Honoria”. So when we were searching for a name for Charles’ sister and wanted something a little haughty Honoria fit the bill. After a few episodes Hawkeye referred to her as “hano-rreaha.” But the point was to needle Charles not just make a gratuitous name joke. We did not have the joke in mind when we named her.

On MASH it seemed there were always new patients and soldiers on every show. To make it easier on ourselves for season seven we just used the roster of the Los Angeles Dodgers. You’ll find Hooten, Rhoden, Lopes, Garvey and even Vic Davalillo. On the X FILES one of the lead characters was named Scully (as in Vin) and Mulder’s replacement was Doggett (as in Jerry, Vin’s longtime broadcast partner).

If you’re going to pick names at random, high school annuals are a good place to start.

We look for names that are somewhat distinctive but not bizarre and not difficult to say. Usually we try to avoid alliteration but not always. Tom Tuttle from Tacoma is one of our most remembered names.

In a pilot with lots of characters to introduce we give them first names starting with different letters to avoid any confusion. If you have a Bob, Bill, Ben, and Brett the reader is going to get hopelessly lost. I also avoid giving girls guy’s names. No Sam, no Alex, no Max. As a rule, you don’t want the reader’s head to explode.

Woody Allen said in an interview that he tries to assign characters short names like Jen or Al or Tom because it’s less to type when writing the screenplay. Uh, has he ever heard of marcros?

One warning of caution if you use names of real people – don’t make those character unflattering. Have some sensitivity to the fact that they may receive some un-asked-for notoriety and it’s a real misuse of your power to set them up as a target for embarrassment.

Even when we used Honoria, we never used a last name. She could be modeled after any one of the thousands or Honoria’s out there. Or six.

From friend of the blog Mary Stella:

During the Phillies playoff games on TBS, TNT is heavily promoting the upcoming new series "Men of a Certain Age". It stars Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher.

When original series like this show up on TNT, does it mean that they ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX all passed, or is TNT aggressively shopping for original programming and backing it up with big bucks?

Sometimes both. Sometimes a writer will pitch a project, usually to a major network first because there’s generally more money, and if they pass they’ll pitch it to cable networks. But other projects are much more suited to cable and writers are inclined to pitch there first. A pilot David and I wrote on spec we sold to FX and didn’t even bother with the majors. We knew that the subject matter was way too edgy for mainstream networks.

Today cable networks like TNT, TBS, FX, USA, and Disney have strong development departments. They each have their own identity and look for shows that fit their brand. Which is not to say that major networks don’t at times think they have brands to uphold as well.

Once, years ago, we were pitching a family pilot to NBC to an executive who later got promoted to a position of great power. At the time SANFORD & SON and CHICO & THE MAN were on their schedule. He passed on our family show saying, “People think of NBC as the network for two character/multi camera/tape comedies.” Oh really?? That’s what people think? “Y’know Marsha, I’m in the mood tonight for a good two character/multi camera/tape comedy. Let’s turn on NBC. Hey, there’s a three character/multi camera/film comedy! What the fuck! Turn that off! Have they gone nuts over there?!”

What’s your question?


Mary Stella said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken.

I never thought I'd yearn for Tim McCarver commentary again . . . then I was forced to listen to Chip Caray, Ron Darling and Buck Martinez for the playoffs.

wv=hellac -- dry ice and a cardboard fan, that's hell's a/c

Rory L. Aronsky said...

When you directed "Becker," how many scene transitions were available to use? Obviously you had to hew to daytime or nighttime scenes, but did you have free reign to choose what you wanted, or did they have a set list so that, say, one that appeared in an episode before yours wasn't used again in your episode?

Nathan said...

In the "we're known for" category...I interviewed to do coverage for Silver Pictures when I first moved to L.A. in the early 90's. They gave me three scripts and one day to read them and write coverage. I recommended a pass on two of them. The third, I said, wasn't something you'd think of as something Silver Pictures would do, but they should think about it.

They told me I was a moron. (No, the person interviewing told me I was a moron!)

The script I recommended was the first Beethoven movie.

D. McEwan said...

In my books, since I write a sort of cartoon parody level of reality, I embrace joke names. I mean "Tallulah Morehead"? Hello? My friend Gilmore Rizzo actually came up with the name Tallulah Morehead, and was credited and thanked in the acknowledgements. I had already decided she would be a Tallulah, as it, I felt, told the reader that her voice, which was vivid in my mental ear, sounded like the famous Miss Bankhead, but Gilmore had the bright idea to tack on Morehead.

I sometimes wonder how many readers manage to decode F. Emmet Knight as "Effeminate". Really broadly jokey names, like Buster Hymen, Shirley Knott, Lance Analvice, Arthur Deco, Pete Moss, Dick Cole, C. Halibut Plugg, and Edward Felcher Lord Sexcrime, Earl of Incestshire, I used only on minor characters. A few got only first names, and I deliberately never named Tallulah's mother at all. And in the new book, a lost tribe of Indians are the Imawankahs. WC Fields loved his jokey names. He bills himself, in his writing credit, in one film as Mahatma Kane Jeeves = "My hat, my cane, Jeeves!"

The Damfino Crime Family in Tallulah's book are named in honor of Buster Keaton's boat in his classic silent short "The Damfino." It was a joke name then, of course. When Buster radios for help and they ask the boat's name, his reply "Damfino" just pisses the Coast Guard off.

I used a lot of place & street names. Torrance Del Amo is actually an intersection in Torrence,California. Vincent Van Owen is another street near my home. Sherman Oakley was one of my favorites, so it went to an important character. Of course, studly characters ALWAYS got phallic names, like Rod Towers, Dick Rockwood, and Snake Bendix. And I often embrace the occasional alliterative name. How could I resist Monica Montana?

Since I was writing parody, sometimes the names had to tell the reader who was being targeted, hence the studio head Louie B. Thalberg, director Cyril Von Millstone, and Joan Crawford's head of Pepsi husband Al Steele became Al Bronze. Silent actress Delores Del Rio became Delores Delgado. (Once, sitting in my optometrist's waiting room, I heard the nurse ask "Delores Delgado" to come up, and a pudgy, homely Mexican woman sitting nearby got up and went over to the nurse. Needless to say, I sat up sharply. There was my book's villainess in the flesh.)

Blogger tells me my comment is too long, so it's in two parts.

D. McEwan said...

Pt 2

In the book I'm trying to sell right now, there is a Mayor named Harry Mirkin. Certainly not a phallic name. Well, he is one of the villains. And as someone raised by a mother who was a Christian Scientist as well as Nelson Eddy's all-time biggest fan, for mom, a character got named Nelson Baker Eddy, with a wife named Jeanette Baker Eddy. My high school choir director, Phil Haynes, inspired this book's high school choir director, Phil Rains, and his wife, who disappears halfway through the book, and is much talked of but not seen, is Claudia. (I let the readers assemble her name in their heads)

I enjoyed foreign joke names, hence my M Jacques Fromage when Tallulah went to Paris. I held off to near the end of his chapter to reveal that "M" stood not for Monsieur, but for Monterey.

I did use friend's names, but mixed around. Bruce Camelia was a friend's middle name and the street he lives on. Keith Kittridge was my middle name and the street I was living on when I wrote it. Tallualh's daughter Patty was named for a friend.

When I need non-jokey names, I sometimes haul out a book with an index full of names. For a play I wrote I went through the index of Noel Coward's diaries, and pulled last names and first names, always rematching them.

For a play I wrote set in a haunted house, I took the names of a series of writers of horror stories, put the first names and last names all on slips of paper, put the last names in one bag, and the first names in another, and then drew them out, rematching them at random. A friend of mine, in a play he wrote that parodied 1950s sci-fi movies, took the names of actors from those films, and traded last and first names around.

And in an early novel I wrote, which I never sold, I used for the villain the name of a guy from high school whom I loathed. Actually, in that book, all the first names were people I knew in high school.

I know of a gay porn star, who took as his porn name the name of a guy who used to beat him up for being gay back in high school. What a cool revenge that was.

A nice female character I gave the first names of my mother and her father, so she became Iris Cole.

An in a desperate pinch, there's always the phone book.

Sorry. I just heard that Soupy Sales died (talk about joke names), and I'm actually crying. I truly loved Soupy. When I met him, I found he was a class act all the way around. Rest the soul of Milton Supman, aka Soupy Sales.

Dave Lifton said...

Bill Lawrence said that he wanted to give John McGinley's character on Scrubs a name that said, "I have the biggest chip on my shoulder." Hence, Percival "Perry" Cox.

D. McEwan said...

Ah, the Keaton short is titled "The Boat." The boat is named "THe Damfino."

VP81955 said...

Many times we’ll use names of friends or people we know. Several of my former girlfriends have seen their names appear on shows my partner and I wrote.

Yep. When I wrote several episodes of a proposed sitcom creation, I named the main character Phil Seawright, because he had been born in Philadelphia (supposedly the night the Phillies won the World Series in 1980 -- his dad is an avid fan) and Seawright was the surname of the first girl I had a crush on. (Phil's girlfriend was named Dawn Vierra -- "Dawn" as a play on the names of the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, and Vierra in honor of Viera, Fla., where the Washington Nationals train.) Another character's name was based on someone I worked with named Valerie Kellogg some years back; I simply changed cereal companies and came up with Valerie Post.

P.S. Phil's middle name was Winthrop, and once every episode his older sister Sandra Seawright would call him out (in exasperation) by his full name, "Philip Winthrop Seawright." Perhaps I came close to falling into one of your "how to tell a bad sitcom" traps.

DwWashburn said...

I always liked the scene where Flagg was trying to show Winchester that he knew all about him in order to get him to cooperate with a plan of his. At that time he mentioned Hano-rreaha. Since I had never seen the spelling of Honoria and never heard of anyone with that name, I always thought it was a good joke.

Oh and RIP Soupy.

Janice said...

I may be missing out, but I boycott shows and movies where the main character is given a specific name just to make for a cutesy title. Case in point, I've never watched "Hope & Gloria", I've never seen "Me, Myself & Irene". I did, however, enjoy "Will & Grace", probably because the naming was so subtle that I didn't catch on.

benson said...

Along the same lines as the 70's Dodger roster, I don't know if he still does this (though IMDB says he's working on a project about Gordie Howe) but during the run of LA Law, David Kelley used a bunch of hockey player surnames for minor characters. It was cool, in the sense that I felt like I was in on an inside joke.

wv: ominfu All I can think of is taking the Felix Unger joke and somehow extending it to Oscar Madison.

LouOCNY said...

Its funny about you using the Dodger names, Ken. When I was a very horny teenager back in the late 70's (as opposed to being a sort of horny old guy now), I had picked up a fairly decent dirty book which became a 'favorite' of mine. The last names of the characters looked very very familiar to me, but for some reason, I could not place them - as I was busy.....

The names were like Anderson, Martin, Chambliss, Griffey, Morgan, Hunter, Munson, etc, etc. It took me the LONGEST time to realize that the author had used....the rosters of the 1976 Yankees and Reds! The thing that clinched it was the main protagonist (a mad scientist who had developed an aphrodisiac) was a Dr Dreissen... I also noticed he/she did not use the names Bench or Nettles - maybe it would have made it too obvious?

Kelly said...

On the topic of character names shared by real people: When people learn my name--Kelly Kelly--they often say, "Like the girl on 'Cheers'" and then start singing the "Kelly song." They remember the song and believe the character was named Kelly Kelly, too. Strangely enough, NO ONE has ever said, "Like the Shelley Long show," although that was the title of the short-lived show and her character's name.

Chazz said...

RE: Network branding. Haven't heard it recently but one thing always got a hair up my nose was: "And Next Replaceable Hottie is here! Star of Forgettable January Replacement Show! ...which appears on another network." As if we give a shit what network it's on. What we care about is what channel and when.

The smarmy pseudo-distancing of "on another network" was so useless. It wasn't like the other network was some secret. It was a push button away. Joe Couchsurfer wasn't at home going, "I'm an NBC man. ABC? What's an ABC?" We don't watch networks, just their shows. It's a pathetic insult to our intelligence which I think has finally fallen out of fashion.

Your story was a hilarious example of a network exec who's drunk on too much of his own peeful bathwater. Thanks again Ken!

Richard Y said...

Its TGIFQD already?? I was just going to write and thank you for answering my question and realize that it was last Friday - time flies....

So here is another....Of all your pitches you and you and your partner prepared were their any that were not accepted that were more serious in nature or at least partially? Such as doctor (besides M*A*S*H and Becker), lawyer firefighters, police type shows?

thank you, Richard

VP81955 said...

Case in point, I've never watched "Hope & Gloria"

Then I take it you never watched "Hope and Faith," either. Don't worry -- you didn't miss much. Though Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford are capable actresses (Faith played Hope on the show, BTW), the writing was dreadful, using just about every bad sitcom cliche in the book. About the only good thing about it was that it was shot in New York, at the Silvercup Studios in Queens (obviously because of Ripa's morning TV show work with Regis Philbin), enabling some New York folk to work on a real live sitcom, if sadly not a real good one.

wv: "bactnest" -- where birds store Bactine.

Anonymous said...

honoria - ex girlfriend... writers have girlfriends? nice to know. or just the paid ones?? hopeful either way.

Anonymous said...

My favorite joke based on a character's name was in a Frasier episode. This was when Daphne was overweight, and for some reason she was laying on the floor, and needed Marty, Frasier and Niles to help her up. Then one of the boys said, "Daphne, do you realize it took three Cranes to lift you?" Her reaction was priceless!

Pamela Jaye said...

As a rule, you don’t want the reader’s head to explode.

I appreciate this. The West Wing used to drive me nuts, early on (and later, when they referred to off camera people I couldn't remember, a lot)

I noticed a long time ago, most of the off camera "kids friends" were named after the crew. As well as the mayor on Spin City.

For years there was an off camera neurologist on Chicago Hope, who later became on camera. I never knew how to spell his name (not that I ever wondered) until one day I went to a play performed by Scott Bakula and Chelsea Field and directed by Joe Cacaci.
Aha! I said.

I was polite the other day (I didn't want you to kill me ;-) ) and did not ask - when you were busy nor getting your date hooked on heroine, which one you didn't use. Wonder Woman? It was too long ago for the bionic woman, or Buffy... (you should see *my* typos. in fact, you've probably already seen several in the very post)

Thanks for the info about the promos for Men of a Certain Age. Even if you announce it, I can't watch baseball* (the brother loved your book - for me, I'll have to stick to your great blog travelogues: too much baseball) so I missed all those promos and wondered why everyone on Twitter was talking about Scott Bakula's new show.

*worse than a typo, I originally typed "football." eek!
and yeah, it's Raymond's show but I don't care about him. I liked someone's take: Everybody Loves Quantum Homicide.

As for naming characters, something else popped into my head. There was once a TV show where the characters were all named after (last name different) and based on (originally) real people. I've often wondered (but never researched) what the kids form the book Eight is Enough thought of the travails assigned to them in later years (compared to their real lives in the 60's, I'm assuming they were tame)

btw, my brother came over and showed me his autographed copy of the MASH script. He appeared quite thrilled :-)

Brigadude said...

I'm guessing there are so few visitors to D. McEwan's website that he posts here. Oy.

Terry Collier said...

Ah, a possible Friday question:
In Frasier, I love David Hyde Pierce and his choice of reactions to comments. So often, it's his reaction that makes the joke. The same with watching him do more physical comedy, such as falling. How much of that is written in the script, and how much is his choice?

Thanks, Cin

Matt said...



Seems like as MASH evolved, Radar became more and more childlike. When the series started, Radar was a martini drinking, poker card cheating, jeep stealing schemer who helped Hawkeye and Trapper get things done.

As the series matured Radar went the opposite way: He evolved into a grape nehi soda pop, golly-gee-whizz, I don't know anything about the world sort of .. child.


Anonymous said...

I loathed Scully on the X-files. She was too sullen and serious, such a humorless bore.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

I loathed Scully on the X-files. She was too sullen and serious, such a humorless bore.

Heh. Now I have an image in my mind of Vin Scully doing the investigating.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken - Although you are very busy with a lot of projects, I was wondering if you and your partner had any current scripts, etc. in the works that you might be able to talk about?

Thanks in advance.

Bob in Denver

D. McEwan said...

"Brigadude said...
I'm guessing there are so few visitors to D. McEwan's website that he posts here. Oy."

Thanks pal, but my Huffnigton Post pieces get the occasional reader.

Rob said...

When writing a spec script how important is it to use the current story arc. For example if the main character starts dating someone in the 5th season of the show, but was single before that, should you write them with or without the girlfriend?

jbryant said...

Several years ago, I wrote a couple of episodes of Disney Channel series. In the first one, I named a couple of teen vampire chicks after my mom and niece. Not wanting my nephew to feel left out, on the next show I named a minor female character "Sam" (breaking one of Ken's rules). Unfortunately, no one involved in the production seemed to realize the actress wore a perfectly legible personalized necklace throughout her scene. I can't remember what name was on it, but it wasn't "Sam."

te said...

When you advise not to give female characters men's names, surely you've granted an exemption for all the women on TV through the years named "Sidney" or "Sydney." There's been a bunch.

Also: too bad Glenn Close's and Michael Learned's parents (among others) came along too early to take your advice.

Seriously, thought, I'm all for it. So was Carroll O'Connor.

wv: "conedie." Well, "Stir Crazy" was one.

UncleWalty said...

I thought it was Klinger that mis-pronounced Honoria as "hon-er-EEH-uh." That's the way I remember it


the absence of nothing

len dreary said...

I'd always supposed Scully was named after the Scully who wrote that early UFO book.
I feel a little disappointed now.

Anonymous said...

Honoria? Rhymes with ... Ken, I hope you got tested after going out with her.