Pursued By A Bear: “How do I come up with interesting character names?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.   

“When is an unusual character name too unusual? I hate calling my characters Steve and Barry, but I can’t take them seriously if they’re called Ziggy or Phoenix or Rembrandt. How do you name your characters?”

Fantastic question. How much do names say about people? What conclusions do we jump to upon hearing a particular name? And how were those impressions formed?

Just the other day I overheard a conversation in which one girl was saying to another that all guys called Kevin are “worthless pieces of shit.”

The girl went on to justify her seething hatred of all Kevins everywhere. She had thus far met four Kevins in her life:

The first Kevin was a bully in school who used to call her a boff because she was good at maths.

The second Kevin was a guy she dated who cheated on her with a girl named Sarah (a name she also came to hate).

Kevin number three was her boss at a previous job who stared unrepentantly at her boobs during every conversation.

The fourth and final Kevin was an unfortunate barista who just so happened to have put milk in her coffee that morning, probably by mistake, and been subsequently lumped in with the three prior degenerate Kevins for the rest of time.

I happen to have a good mate named Kevin who I’ve known since school.

Because of this, I really felt the need to jump in and defend Kevins. Just because this girl happened to have only met bad Kevins, she shouldn’t allow this to cloud her judgment of all men named Kevin forever. It actually occurred to me that her prejudice against the name Kevin was so deeply ingrained by this stage that she would never even open herself to the possibility of a good Kevin and would therefore never spend long enough with another Kevin to change her perception.

Clearly a crying shame.

So when an opportunity later arose to join the conversation and offer this girl the use of my phone charger, I did so politely and without even the merest glance at her boobs. Nor did I call her a boff, make any mention of the name Sarah, or pour milk in her coffee. I just loaned her the charger and we had a pleasant chat.

It seemed we were getting on pretty well, the conversation flowed, there was laughter. So, when I felt she had formed a sufficiently positive impression of me I slipped in; “My name’s Kevin by the way.”

To which she responded; “Really? You don’t look like a Kevin.”

What does she think Kevins look like? Are they all similar in appearance? Or has her skewed experience of the personalities of men named Kevin also poisoned her mental image of all Kevins?

Presumably if this girl was reading a play and a character named Kevin appeared, she would picture him as some kind of wretched, drooling beast, staggering across the stage hunched over with his eyeline fixed conveniently at boob height.

At the same time I found her reaction uncannily accurate, because I am in fact not a Kevin.

Anyway, it turned out we couldn’t be friends after all because her name was Rebecca and I once had a bad experience with a girl named Rebecca.

Names are very powerful.

Aside from the shallow properties we ascribe to names based on our own past experiences, they can also hold connotations of gender, age, race, class and nationality. We even pin qualities to names based on popular culture; my uncle’s nickname is Woody, and whenever I hear it I immediately picture him as either a cartoon woodpecker or a toy cowboy.

Choose your names carefully.

If your character is supposed to be a lower class, wheeler-dealer who sells dodgy merchandise off the back of a lorry, don’t call him Tarquin. Call him Dave or Gaz.

If your character is a snobbish, middle class housewife who tells everyone her husband is a doctor when he’s actually just a dentist, don’t call her Tracy. Call her Anthea or Judith.

Playwrights do often fall into the trap of trying to pick an unusual name for every character. We want the audience to remember who’s on stage, and an odd name is a surefire way for this to happen, unless it’s lost in a sea of equally unusual names.

A cast of characters called Blue Ivy, Apple, Peaches, North, Rocket, Bronx and Brooklyn will force your audience to believe there are an alarming number of parents in your fictitious world loony enough to name their kids after their favourite fruits or places they once had sex.

Please don’t name a character Grapes or Bus Stop 42 without a good reason.

Audiences can only suspend their disbelief so far.

Of course, if you feel a selection of unusual names is entirely appropriate to the setting of your play then by all means go ahead. Remember, names can be unusual in one context and completely normal in another.

Whenever I tell people my wife’s name is Ekene, they typically respond with “That’s an unusual name.”

To which I reply “Not in Nigeria.”

There are obviously circumstances in which unusual names are a requirement; would Star Wars work if instead of Han Solo, Darth Vader and Yoda the characters were called Robert Smith, James Turner and Barry?

Probably wouldn’t be the same.

I try to name my characters according to their desired personality and the context of the play. I’ll think about the time and place, list some names appropriate for that setting, and then try to choose one that brings to mind the qualities I want that character to have.

So if I’m writing a play about high society in Victorian England I might have the names Victoria, Edith, Dorothy, Ursula, Ivy and Rose in mind. I want one particular character to be serious and matronly so I would probably pick Edith.

I want another character to stand out as a bit of an oddball so I’d probably choose Ursula to create that unusual impression right off the bat.

And don’t forget, what seems like an unusual name to me might not be unusual to you. None of these preconceptions are entirely universal, they’re all affected by personal experience.

The chances are that most people will get the broader cultural meanings denoted by certain names; they’ll probably picture Jen as a white woman and Kingsley as a black man. But they won’t know a girl named Rebecca once stole the Babybel out of your packed lunch in primary school and you subsequently associate the name with honourless and despicable thieves.

Use names to form an impression, but don’t expect them to do all the work for you.

Unless you’re working in Hollywood, in which case naming a man John is enough to let everyone know he’s a tough, muscular hero who regularly murders a lot of people in the name of justice.

John McLane, John Connor, John Constantine, John Rambo, John Carter, John Wick, John Shaft, John Smith, John Anderton, John Kimble, John Snow, John Tucker, John Kruger…

If your character really needs an unusual name, by all means use one. But don’t just call a character Napoleon Dynamite, Broomhilda von Shaft or Benedict Cumberbatch for the sake of it. Audiences do tend to see through shallow and shameless attempts to make a character interesting.

A well-developed character named Joe will always be more fascinating to watch than a weak character named Shadowcat Insaneballs. Just watch the film of Ender’s Game and marvel at the sheer tedium of Ender Wiggin, Razer Mackham, Bonzo Madrid, Dink Meeker and Sergeant Dap if you don’t believe me.

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1 thought on “Pursued By A Bear: “How do I come up with interesting character names?””

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