Naming characters is one of the fun aspects of writing, whether it be a screenplay, teleplay, graphic novel, or poem. The right name can suggest a backstory, evoke a physical image or personality, and/or foreshadow a destiny. Any of these can incite an emotional response to your character, making them memorable. And that’s what you want, isn’t it? Memorable characters that hook the viewer/reader, make us want to know more about them, make us root for them.
I believe the right name can help initiate this connection the very first time we hear it, even if the character named isn’t in the scene when we hear the name.
To prove my point, I want to look at a couple names that not only are part of the collective consciousness in the U.S. but also throughout the world: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Virtually everybody knows who they are, right? Kingpins of the Star Wars saga. You don’t even have to see the movies to know them. They’re on lunch boxes, T-shirts, beach towels. Everything. Everywhere.
But I doubt this would be the case if they were called Steve and Bill.
There’s something going on with the names Luke and Darth that makes them solid, hard-working choices for their respective characters. Maybe if we can figure out what makes these names so effective, we can apply the same principles when naming our characters.
As a preface, I want to say I don’t believe George Lucas consciously performed the analytics I’m going to undertake while naming his characters. But I’d bet the farm that, at his talent-level and with his experience, at least some of the elements I’ll discuss informed his decision subconsciously. They’re the reasons Luke and Darth felt right.
First, let’s take a quick look at the names from the macro level. Luke Skywalker. Easy to say. Relatively high pitch, which generally connotes something positive or good. And the Skywalker, well, it suggests something supernatural. Maybe a superpower. Or a connection with the Force.
And Darth Vader. More difficult to say, because of the bump/stop caused by the “th.” Relatively low pitch, which generally connotes something negative or evil. And of course, Darth Vader being an obvious mash-up of “dark invader” should set off some alarms.
Now, let’s move to the micro level.
Luke Skywalker is a good guy, a hero-in-waiting. Luke Skywalker. Say it again. Out loud. Luke Skywalker. Note that “Lu” is a relatively high pitch, very similar to the comforting, approving “ooo” we say when we see something we like, for example, a cute baby. Not only that, “Lu” and “ooo” are practically identical sounds.
In fact, I’d suggest this similarity of pitch and sound subconsciously predisposes us to like Luke.
Note also that your mouth is puckered up when you say “Lu” or “ooo.” Then notice what happens when you finish saying Luke. To add the “ke,” which is a relatively low pitch, your mouth drops out of the pucker into an open, slack-jaw position.
Why is this important?
Because, physiologically, it’s a quick, easy move for your mouth to go from this open, slack-jaw position to the wide, almost-a-grin position it needs to be in to say the high-pitch “Sky” in Skywalker. (The “walker” stairsteps down in pitch as it ends the name by fading out.) The pitch progression of Luke Skywalker is: High. Low. High. Low. Lower.
Point is, it’s quick and easy to say the name of the good guy we’re predisposed to like.
This is in stark contrast with Darth Vader, the dark lord, evil personified. Darth Vader. Say it again. Out loud. Darth Vader. Note that “Dar” is a low pitch, very similar to the disapproving, nose-curling “argh” we say when we react negatively to something we don’t like, for example, fly-covered roadkill. Not only that, “Dar” and “argh” are practically identical sounds.
In fact, I’d suggest this similarity of pitch and sound subconsciously predisposes us to dislike Darth.
Note also that your mouth is open and slack-jawed when you say “Dar” or “argh.” Then notice what happens when you finish saying Darth. To add the “th,” which is another low pitch, your mouth semi-puckers and closes a bit, your tongue touches your palette, and you exhale the ugly “th” sound over your tongue.
Even though Darth is one syllable, you mouth has to make two moves to say it. And then your mouth has to open to a near grin to say “Va,” which is a low pitch but higher than Darth. The “der” which ends the name is a lower pitch than “Va.” As the “der” fades out, your mouth returns to a closed position. The pitch progression of Darth Vader is: Low. Lower. Low. Lower. Point is, it’s harder (more mouth movement) and takes longer (because of this movement) to say the name of the bad guy we’re predisposed to dislike.
The reason I dove so deep into how the names Luke and Darth function is to provide you with a tool that can help you decide which of the names you come up with will best suit your story. So where do you find these potentially script-worthy names?
If you’re enrolled in the write-what-you-know school, then the first place to look is your own life. Go over the names of your relatives, friends, teachers, camp counselors, bullies, mentors, classmates, co-workers. Chances are you’ve got a clueless, cringe-causing Uncle Bill. Maybe if you up the “ew” factor and change his name to UB, you’ll have a character name you can use.
Of course, you can always stop by any place where people are talking: the gym, market, mall, your favorite bar. Just shut off your phone and listen. People’s names are often part of the conversations, and what these characters look like might inspire what your characters look like. A bonus: if the bar’s TVs are on, you’ll have all kinds of names coming at you.
And it’s always fun to look for names in unexpected places.
Back when Jimmy Palmiotti and I were writing our adaptation of the graphic novel Back to Brooklyn (which Jimmy created and wrote with The Boys’ Garth Ennis), we were having a working lunch and naming some secondary characters. Having hit a bit of a wall, Jimmy suggested we look at the menu. And there, under “Side Dishes,” we found our inspiration: butternut squash. Which became Butternuts, our ruthless Italian mobster.
So … if a menu can be an unexpected source for names, how about the spice section in the supermarket? Pepper? That could work, depending on the personality of your character. Or Nutty Meg? How about items in an antique store? Or in a bait-and-tackle shop? Bobber?
A character’s physical traits or size or age can inspire a name. The beloved 84-year-old waitress in a diner in Dark Red, an action thriller I wrote for Leigh Simons Productions, is called Shuffles. The behemoth Samoan first mate in Jimmy’s and my graphic novel Found (currently being serialized on Zestworld) is called Big. At first, Big seemed too easy. But it felt right. He was Big.
A character’s favorite food or drink or sport or job or hobby could inspire a nickname. Or a major success or fail. A chef called Burns? One caution: nicknames based on personality can be too on the nose. Snake would never work for me, but it’s your story. If you are creating nicknames, don’t overlook those that reverse reality. The huge guy being called Tiny, etc.
In general, you want names that reflect the location, year, and situation of your story. If a character is in their 50s, Google favorite names 55 years ago and see what names were popular.
You want names that do more than identify your characters. They should reveal something about each character, make them unique and memorable. While feeling natural or normal.
You should avoid long names when possible. Avoid having multiple names that start with the same letter, or sound alike, or have the same number of syllables.
Unless the similarities serve a purpose.
Consider Romeo and Juliet. Both names have three syllables. Their pitch patterns are the same: Low. High. Low. Your mouth moves essentially the same way when saying them: Pucker. Grin. Half-pucker. Were Shakespeare’s name choices telling us that the star-crossed lovers were equals?
Or maybe I just fell off a cliff?
Have fun naming your characters!
*Feature Photo: Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker (Lucasfilm)