Character Names in the new melting pot



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  • Character Names in the new melting pot

    ...At the suggestion of "catcon," I am re-posting this subject here, although I am of course looking to Bill's take should this issue rise to the level of a SCRIPT magazine treatise...!


    Hi Bill, thanks as always for your interjections which serve to provide a new perspective on "sticking points" we all struggle with.

    Maybe you've already done this one...but what about an article on "naming characters." The reason I brought this up is that one (very established) reader critique point of my last script was that if "there was a Scrabble game for names you would win hands down." His point was that a Producer would stumble over the awkward name sets (first and last name) I had given my characters.

    Now here's the deal, I named some in reference to Greek and biblical mythology so he said, fine, leave it at one or two, NOT the whole cast. On the other hand, I named some of the characters from my own experience, friends who hail from Cambodia, India, Venezuela, Chile. So no, my first names weren't the usual Jim, Bill, Marry, Sarah -- more like Andres, Asha, Picsoth, Srivi.

    Now I'm (first name "Bob") as white cracker as one gets -- but his comment really kind of stunned me what with the ethnic face of the world changing. And this brings up the irony that here is Hollywood thought mostly of being so liberal juxtaposed with his contention that Producers would continually choke on the "read" with such an ethnic diversity of names.

    So what's your take? Again, you may have covered this in the past, but now as the "melting pot" has become more "melted," WHAT ARE the issues with using ethnically diverse names -- as if there should BE ANY!


    Bob (boring name )

  • #2
    Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

    Interesting question -- I look forward to the discussion. I've given supporting characters less-traditional cultural backgrounds in my future set script (NYC Mayor is east Indian, COO of mega-corp is Latino, etc.). But I'll honestly say I gave the two leads more traditional names for casting purposes. Maybe that's too much calculation as has been mentioned recently.
    Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-


    • #3
      Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

      Two comments.

      First, the big picture one. Don't assume that producers know what they are talking about. Obviously, the good ones do. But many don't. At the end of the day, this has to be a script that's your voice.

      Second, the actual note. Is he asking about the exotic names or that he glossed over the names because he wouldn't know how to pronounce them? Because a friend of mine wrote a Greek script and I tripped over names. And I felt like an idiot giving him notes in person when I was like "So and so..." He'd say "It's pronounced this way..."


      • #4
        Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

        Originally posted by YakMan View Post
        ...WHAT ARE the issues with using ethnically diverse names -- as if there should BE ANY!
        From one white cracker to another, there shouldn't be any issues, but you still have to deal with the market and a few obvious principles.

        Is the character M or F? Think "Chris". M or F? So, "Hamid" is pretty obviously M, but another choice may not be. eg. Asha?

        And Hamid is easy to read/say, too. Imagine one that causes you to stop and phonetically think it out: Shalikashvili (yes, I know that's a U.S. General). It may not be appropriate unless after the first use it's abbreviated to Shally or something.

        When I read the script for "Gran Torino", it seems to me the names were fairly simple, like Tran, etc. Oops, going by IMDB one was Thao, but that's not too complicated for people who are used to John and Bob or Rachel.

        But you do have a choice to make; you don't have to pick the most obtuse names in the lexicon, given that the majority of the audience is probably more interested in what the character's doing anyway. They may find the character's ethnicity interesting, but couldn't care less about the name.

        I've written an India-based story and of course some of the names would be challenging for most North Americans. Maybe it was a cop out, but wherever possible I referred to them by their role, eg. "taxi driver". But of course they were incidental characters. If I really need a name, for these things I go to the various "baby name" sites and refer to nationality and M/F to find short ones that sound, to my tone-deaf ear, M/F.

        Also, and maybe it occurs less frequently these days, but when I grew up many immigrant friends actually changed their names (unofficially). So, where I knew a "Walter" or a "John", those were far away from their real monikers. The John was an anglicization but the Walter most assuredly was not. They retained their ethnic surnames, of course.

        Maybe a half-measure is to use a character's real last name but for the purposes of the script, give them an Anglicized or nick name. It's just easier. It would work particularly well if it's a story about gangs. But then if it's a story about nightclubbing, you can probably give your characters genuine ethnic names, as that environment is more libertarian.

        It that was interesting about your Greek and biblical mythology nomenclature. I did that in one allegorical tale I wrote, for instance using "Mikhail" for someone who represented the avenging Archangel Michael. I didn't want to use "Michael" because it would seem too obvious. (My odd thinking of things) But it was a strange twist in that I was doing the reverse of the solutions I've already pointed out -- making a name "more" ethnic.

        Anyway, it's great that ethnicity, never mind the names, is becoming more of a norm. Good business. Good social standard. Watching some of the older films, even the classics, it's amazing how pasty-white they all are... and how much of the potential (paying) audience they ignored.


        • #5
          Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

          Originally posted by YakMan View Post
          I named some of the characters from my own experience, friends who hail from Cambodia, India, Venezuela, Chile. So no, my first names weren't the usual Jim, Bill, Marry, Sarah -- more like Andres, Asha, Picsoth, Srivi.
          I can't give you insights into the minds of industry people regarding character names. But, FWIW, as someone who has trouble recalling names and who has interacted with people from all over the world, I offer a few comments/suggestions.

          I'm American, and Jim and John are about as plain-vanilla-American names as can be, yet if those where the two main chars in a script, I would have trouble keeping them straight (depending, maybe, on their intros). That's my failing, but I'm mentioning this for a baseline.

          So, for example, Andres and Asha may be names from two quite different cultures, and only Asha is a girl's name, but if I don't know either culture, they strike me as kinda the same.

          It might help if you looked at prospective names as if they weren't names, but simply foreign words.

          Imagine you and your buddy are named Paintball and Pinball and you meet a guy from "Fredonia" who has very limited English skills. Sure, you know what your names mean as English words and you know what "paint" and "pin" mean, but he doesn't. He hears P and N and BALL... so your two names might sound about the same. And on paper they look kinda the same.

          Let's say you have an American char named Andrew and a Chilean named Andres. If the person reading your script is keyed into ethnicity, those names are quite different, but if s/he isn't, they seem kinda the same. Plus, they are the same number of letters and simply as a grouping of lines they look kinda the same.

          So, your script has a bunch of "foreign" names. When someone reads your script, that first foreign name goes into a brain category of "some name I've never seen before". The second foreign name gets put into that same brain category. You want to help the reader differentiate within that category.

          If I wanted to give my chars odd-to-Americans names from different cultures, I'd try to make the names look different, mix them up: almost no vowels; "uu" in the middle (like some Finish names, IIRC); very long; very short. Or, maybe they include/suggest an English word: an "odd" guy named Krazinski. And for readers who sound out names in their heads, mix up the hard/soft sounds.


          • #6
            Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

            Ethnic names and/or corresponding nick names can be easy to pronounce and memorable. No need to pile on tongue-convulsing syllables.
            Brown-Balled by the Hollywood Clika

            Latino Heart Project's MEXICAN HEART...ATTACK!


            • #7
              Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

              No offense to the OP, but there's a very simple solution that hardly warrants an article in a script writing magazine and has nothing to do with ethnicity:

              No matter what ethnicity your characters are, just give them names that can be easily pronounced by your average literate person, and don't have any that sound too similar or that all start with the same letter.
              "The Hollywood film business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." Hunter S Thompson


              • #8
                Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

                I don't know if anyone else has ever done this before, but one way I avoid any angst over the naming thing, over 13+ scripts, is that for the main characters I use and reuse the same names from script to script.

                Always different characters, of course. But the same names. I just don't find it very interesting to come up with new names for the main characters for each script. And unless you were to read two of my stories at once, who'd know? Who'd care?!

                So, there's almost always a Rachel or a Rebecca. And a Sam or a Charles (or Charlie). Sprinkled in two or three of them are a Lily and a Proctor, who's always the villain, by the way. Except in one script he (Proctor) started off a cranky guy but turned out to be a good guy.

                I'm just waiting for somebody to read several of my scripts in one go, and then say, "Ha, ha, I was at page 55 and was amazed that there was no Rachel, but then, on page 56, there she was!!!"

                It probably sounds silly, but it means that when I'm asked about my scripts, I don't have to think, Who was the protag? Who was the sidekick? etc. etc.

                For one thing, if anybody ever found all of the scripts on the side of the road, with their cover pages (with my contact info) torn off, they could read the scripts and know they were all written by the same person!


                • #9
                  Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

                  catcon - Ugh. Seriously? What are you going to do when someone wants to read more than one of your scripts? Make up names on the fly and hurriedly CTRL+F and replace all the duplicates?

                  I know every writer has their own methods. I know you stated that they are "different characters" when you do this. But it seems to me that it your method would make it difficult to view your characters as individuals with unique roles to play in their own stories.

                  Do all of your scripts take place in the exact same time period? The same geographical location? Names go out of fashion like anything else, and names vary from place to place, even within the same country/region.

                  What do the names you choose mean? In the pages I posted in the Advanced Forum, my main character's name is Ulrich (prosperity and power) Anselm (God's helmet) Mann (man). This name has a very specific meaning that ties into the theme of the story. I couldn't very well give it to some other character in some other story I'm writing, I couldn't even give it to a different character in the SAME story. It's custom built for my protagonist.

                  So yes, unfortunately it does sound silly to me. I mean, how much thought did you put into each of these thirteen scripts if you'd have to actually stop and struggle to remember what you named your characters every time someone asked? You want people to detect your voice as a writer in two separate unmarked scripts, not just put it together that you use the same names all the time.

                  I don't mean to offend with anything I'm saying here. I'm just trying to stress how important names are in defining your characters. The earlier you can pin down who that person is, the more the writing will benefit as you put that well-defined person into situations that test them. If they're Rachel 13 I'm guessing the task of defining the unique individual traits of the character is going to be an uphill battle from the outset.

                  This also goes for real life! There's a Seinfeld joke that I'm going to paraphrase badly here. You name your kid Jeeves, and you've basically mapped out his future, haven't you? Names, to a large extent, define who we are.


                  • #10
                    Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

                    First - sorry for not responding: I was just looking for subjects, and wasn't in "answer question mode".

                    Second: What Ham and Cshel said - the reason for nicknames is because people's actual names may be difficult to pronounce, so I'll just call you Nick or Gus, how about that?

                    Third: The controversial one - note under the note - is the real problem that once a character is named Achmed it limits casting? Though America is a melting pot, movie stars? Not so much. So maybe the real problem is that the ethnic name limits casting?

                    (Just read Catcon's post and he covered that - so I actually have nothing important to say here!)

                    - Bill (redundant)
                    Free Script Tips:


                    • #11
                      Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

                      I've got one name that appears/will appear in every one of my screenplays. It's a tiny wink/tip of the hat to my favorite writers.
                      "All of us trying to be the camera behind the camera behind the camera. The last story in line. The Truth" Chuck Palahniuk - Haunted


                      • #12
                        Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

                        Originally posted by wcmartell View Post
                        ...that once a character is named Achmed it limits casting? Though America is a melting pot, movie stars? Not so much. So maybe the real problem is that the ethnic name limits casting? ...
                        - Bill (redundant)
                        Believe it. My most "important" script (dark comedy) has the earlier-mentioned "Hamid", the leading man in the story, and it's been a dickens to think of who'd act in the role.

                        Closest I can think of is that marvelous specimen who played the Saudi colonel in The Kingdom, but in my story he has to speak perfect English and I don't know if that fellow can. (Really noble, great character in that movie, though.)


                        • #13
                          Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

                          Chiming back in here -- I most appreciate the give & take on this issue. My takeaway is ... don't stress and go with the K.I.S.S. method.

                          Example, if you have a a character whose full - first - name might be "Savitha" -- go with the "Americanized" nickname of what we all call her anyway = "Savi." That's easy to pronounce and not something that would trip up a reader. ...and at least, I'll just say it, gets past the Sarah, Sally, Sam, that so culturally "middle-of-the-roads" scripts.


                          • #14
                            Re: Character Names in the new melting pot

                            (I'm back from little chill out in the wilderness, hehe)

                            Well, I can only agree with the "weird" sounding names and possible readers/audience. I wrote two novels, among them one taking place in Ancient Egypt, of course with the fitting names, and I got some responses about "names sound the same", "can't remember the names", etc. However, I had no other choice.

                            If you have no other choice (it would be odd naming your Pakistan character 'Joe'), then at least you should try to take easy names and make them quite different from each other. As for instance, 2 German characters: Herbert and Markus = different ending, different start of the name. So the reader/audience can at least remember an "H" and an "M" - thingie.

                            In my last script I had to deal with Afghan and Russian names and realized only in contact with English speakers, that they would pronounce it wrong and I needed another transcription.

                            It's always a tricky thing. Short names, and not too difficult. (If I had to read a script with names having "zcs" and no vowels in ALL of the names, I would get lost...)