Friday, February 04, 2005  

Etymology in Character Naming

I've read several articles and even been to a few websites that touch on the subject of character naming, but they never really give solid advice. I developed my own process for finding the perfect names for my characters that will help them come to life and breath off the page.

A screenplay has characters with names that you must create. Etymology can help ease the burden of this process.

By definition etymology is the origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest known use, and changes in form and meaning, tracing its transmission from one language to another, identifying its cognates in other languages, and reconstructing its ancestral form where possible. Let’s look at this idea in a more simplistic form. Etymology defines names.

In the development stages of any script character naming issues exist. You look over the mock profile you've created for a particular character: age, sex, physical attributes, fictional background etc. and ponder - what's the best name for this person? I seem to always want to use my own name. I like it. Always sounds good. It's real. After all, a lot of the main characters I develop stem from some sort of subliminal aspirations I have of who I want to be anyway. Wrong on so many levels. There are more creative and satisfying ways to create character names that will stick to your readers’ palette.

The use of etymology in the selection of character names offers endless possibilities. Not only will you find creative names with this technique; the name you choose will reflect your characters personal profile that you created. Your character's name will also help you remember their most poignant attributes. This is a benefit in the tedious task of giving life to a fictional person.

Every character of a screenplay consists of three elements: physical attributes, personality and background. When the time comes to name them, look over your notes and pick out a few keywords that dominate their profile. For example, I describe a protagonist as being strong hearted. A good keyword is "strong". Cross-reference the keyword selected in an etymology dictionary. ( is a great place to find one online.) A name that I came up with after searching returned, BERK. Berk means, "solid, firm and strong" in Turkish. I also described my character as being somewhat cheerful all the time. The next keyword is "cheerful". Another search produced MERIWETHER. The name comes from a surname meaning "happy weather" in Middle English, originally belonging to a cheery person. BERK MERIWETHER. Has a nice original ring to it. I think it’ll stick in people’s heads.

I find myself in the middle of a writing a scene. I try to keep in mind what my character is all about. Where is he coming from? Where are my character notes? Crap, what was I just thinking about adding to this scene? (sigh) Berk, strong: Meriwether, cheerful, that's what he's about deep inside. Back to the scene.

This is of course a simplistic explanation of the technique. Who on earth would write a script with a strong and cheerful protagonist? That's not the point. It's merely selecting first and last names that help you remember key attributes about your characters. When your nose deep in the keyboard and focusing on a draft the last thing you want to do is pull your head up. Just looking at your character name will jog your memory and keep you in tune with what you’re writing. Besides, editing is a big part of screenplay writing. During the re-write process you can always go back and review your character charts to make sure they stay true to their original development.

Now armed with a new technique, go ahead and give it a try. Look up your own name and find out what it means. It's a good place to start. It can be fun. After all, a little self-realization goes along way when your goal is to become a screenwriter.


At 9:30 AM,Blogger Alex said...

very interesting and good advice. of course, it can also be useful to undermine norms and expectations of the audience. i just couldn't help but think that it would be even more interesting if you made berk meriwether a bit of a sap. but maybe i've been reading too much chandler and cain. :)

At 5:32 AM,Blogger Gary P said...

Very interesting site.
I would just like to add something to this post. I believe it is very important to work out your character's name at the beginning of your screenplay and stick with it. I have found myself giving a character a placeholder name and changing it to something better later. Then during rewrites and polishes I have found myself using the wrong name because the original name is ingrained in your subconscious because it was used during the formative stage of the SP. This invariably leads to readers asking me things like "Who the hell is Berk Merriweather and what happened to Strong Cheerifella?"