What’s in a name?
We took the kids to see Swallows and Amazons a few days ago and we all enjoyed the film. It is a fairly slight story, even with added spies, but was a perfect, nostalgia-ridden family-film to spend an afternoon with – the sort of film we, perhaps, don’t see enough of these days?
Something that intrigued me about the film was the re-naming of one of the characters. Titty from the book, became Tatty for the film. The reasons for that change are obvious; a little sad that it was felt necessary but a sign of the times perhaps? The family were certainly not happy. I don’t want to debate the merits of the name change but what it did make me think about was how we go about choosing names for the characters in our screenplays.
Everyone loves a great character name and, most importantly, remembers them. But how are they generated? How do writers come up with some of these gems? And do they spend hours considering the meaning behind those names and how they can be cleverly linked to the theme of their stories and the nature of their characters?
There are also lots of examples of clever names in films; names that are used to enhance the viewers experience. Take Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007) for example – could you get a more descriptive name for a character who sees the world in black and white? Or Louis Cypher from Angel Heart (1987)?
It is incredibly easy to look up the meaning of any name via the wonders of the interweb, using sites such as Behind the Name or Ancestry. There are too many sites to mention, but certainly enough to be able to check names from any corner of the globe and in any language.
I have, in the past, spent a very long time considering the names of some of my characters, thinking there needs to be some deeper meaning behind them. This can often be a very painful process, trying to find just the right name to fit the right personality, only to find two sites that describe the meaning of the name differently; hopefully fairly closely but I have found some that have provided almost opposite meanings to each other.
A screenplay I am currently working on has Chinese characters who are storytellers, so I wanted something that reflected that in my protagonist’s name. Chen Ming was the name I chose in the end, where the surname Chen can mean “exhibit, narrate or arrange”. This fits well with storytelling and the puppetry that features in the story. Ming means “bright”, reflecting both the lights used in their puppetry, but also the nature of a smart lead character. My antagonist is named Lie, which means “fierce” and Ming also meets characters such as Shu (kind or gentle) and Ho (goodness). I spend a long time getting to those names, and I am very happy with them as they do reflect the nature of their characters. However, ultimately, does it really matter? Will it mean much to the majority of people who may make up the audience? Or does it just sound authentic? Won’t most of the audience just want to watch great characters, whatever their names?
As my writing has progressed, I have tried to shy away from obsessing too much over names. I am sure that, while there is always something to be said for smart naming, the deeds, actions and traits of your character are far more important than their name. You could have the greatest name anyone has ever heard of but, put that into a dull, weak story with lifeless characters, and that is all the audience will remember – and not for the right reasons.
So is the creation/use of a name in a script THAT important? Titty/Tatty is a difficult example, actually, as the name refers to a real-life person but, ultimately, does the name matter, or is it the deeds of the heroine in the story that define her more?
What do you think?
Do you painstakingly create clever, meaningful names for your characters?
Or do you think that is all just too much like hard work, when I could, in fact, be writing?