One of my most consistent comments on scripts is, I have difficulty differentiating between characters because characters have similar names.
Listen. Character names have jobs.
One job is to create an impression of character. You are going to have an impression of character based on name alone going in. Bob Cohen, for example, and Bob Graycloud, will create different immediate impressions.
That’s based on last name alone. Imagine how more distinct those two characters would feel if they did not share the first name Bob?
Another job is to establish differentiation between characters for a reader.
Consider this. You open a script and in the first ten pages meet:
Bob, Bobby, Billy, and Barry – and their girlfriends Billie, Barbie, Barrie, and Brandy.
Wait, I left a part out. Their ages. These characters are introduced with names and ages, and that’s really going to make a difference going in, right?
[No it isn’t.]
Bob (29), Bobby (23), Billy (24), Barry (26) – and girlfriends Billie (23), Barbie (27), Barrie (29), and Brandy (24).
That makes it all clearer, right?
No. That doesn’t. Trying to sort characters by age is like trying to play scrabble on meth.
[Okay I’ve never done scrabble on meth but I’m pretty sure it’s similar.]
*By the way, I am not exagerating there, I’m making that up on the fly as an example but I have seen much, much worse. Ahhh!
At the very least, make an effort to begin character names with different letters. And give characters more differentiation in their introductions than a number in brackets behind their names.
Also, attempt to not have all names contain similar sounds and syllables. This especially applies to female characters. If all female characters’ names have two syllables and identical end sounds, for example, Stacy, Tracy, Macy and Gracy, I, as a reader, am going to be struggling hard separating their action and dialogue in a script.
*That also doesn’t say anything good about the writer’s take on women unless there is ironic purpose behind a huge similarity between female character names there. Hmm.
Another job in play with character names is signifying the importance of a character in plot and story terms.
I open a script. I meet 15 named characters. And then, 10 of them disappear. Okay. I don’t know any of them, or which of them, going in, are going to disappear or be unimportant. They all have proper names. Proper names spell “important character.” So. I have to keep track of them all. In my head.
*Are you trying to give me a brain tumor!?
How do I know who to pay attention to when even the truck stop waitress who only has one line of dialogue about salad dressing has a proper name?
Named characters are supposed to be significant characters. That is why they have proper names.
Give bit player characters bit player names. Waitress. Doctor. Boots. Hot Guy in Jeans. Guy in Hat. Guy With Scar. Girl With Lavender Hair. I don’t care what the designations are, just don’t give bit player characters proper names. It confuses the read. And, then, when characters are important? THEN, they get significant names.
Agnes Mortgenstein. That’s a name that tells a reader a character is significant. It’s easy to spot Agnes. She has an unusual name.
Bringing those three points home for the back row, character names have specific jobs in fiction and screenwriting. Three of those jobs are:
•Create an impression of character through name impression.
•Establish differentiation between characters through name sound and syllable differentiation.
•Establish importance of character through use of proper names for significant characters and designations for less significant characters.