In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare wrote; “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s a much repeated quote, and it was brought to mind recently when I was talking to some students about character names in screenplays.
The point I was making at the time could easily be taken out of context, and I thought it may merit a little discussion.
SELECTING CHARACTER NAMES CAN BE PROBLEMATIC
It’s often very tricky finding a name that both fits the character’s personality and one that will be memorable in the mind of both the screenplay reader and the audience. Writers frequently want character names to carry meaning, and have subtext, but I argue that if they make reading the screenplay difficult or hard work they count against you.
Let’s take Sirius Black, the name of a character who appears in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the story Sirius can transform into a black dog. Where did JK Rowling find the name… well Sirius is the name of the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, and “Canis Major” means “big dog”.
In Star Wars, “Darth” is a variation of “dark”, and “Vader” is Dutch for “father”. Wish I knew that when I watched the first film.
In Hunger Games, the protagonist Katniss is named after a plant, however it’s a little more complex than that, because the Katniss plant is also known by the scientific species name Sagittaria sagittifolia, many varieties of which, include the word “arrowhead” in their common names. In The Hunger Games series of films, the weapon of choice used by Katniss is… the bow & arrow.
CONSIDER THE EFFORT A READER HAS TO MAKE
There are many examples of clever names that work, (such as those above,) filled with subtext and meaning, but let’s get back to my point; which is really about readability and easing the amount of effort a reader has to make to read a screenplay at speed.
Katniss, Darth Vader and Sirius Black are all unique names with meaning and subtext AND they are both memorable and easy to read in English. Good choices I’d say.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are characters with names like Daenerys Targaryen from The Game of Thrones.
Having trouble with the pronunciation of her name? For the record it’s “‘Duh-nair-ris’ ‘Tar-gair-ee-in”. Doesn’t sound English, so what language is Daenerys Targaryen? It isn’t. George R Martin, an American fantasy writer, made it up when he wrote the series of novels called “A Song of Ice and Fire”, on which the TV series is based.
The name is a tongue twister the first time you read it, but in retrospect it absolutely works for the character when you read the book or watch the TV series. I’m confident that George R Martin put some time and thought into it, so why would I use this as an example of a name that you should avoid when writing your screenplay? Only because it may slow down the ability of a potential reader to read your screenplay and that may mean that it doesn’t get read at all – no matter how good the story or the screenplay may be.
READING TEN SCREENPLAYS A DAY IS NOT UNREALISTIC
Most screenplay readers and Producers – the people you want, and need to read your screenplay – are busy people who read many screenplays – most of them bad and boring. To stand out from the crowd and give yourself the best chance of success, you need to make reading your screenplay a pleasant and entertaining experience for them. Eliminating names that are difficult to pronounce or remember will help you do that.
So how do you deal with the situation when you want to give your character a Polish name to highlight their Polish tradition and character? Let’s say your screenplay is set in Warsaw – you are a Polish writer working in English -, and you want to name your protagonist Andrzej Wajda – which is a quintessential example of a Polish name, (and coincidentally the name of a well-known Polish film director). For you the name does the job well.
In reality though, most English readers have no idea how to pronounce that name when they first see it, and so it’s subconsciously becomes a small blip in their reading experience. Depending on which side of the bed they used to get up that morning, it could be the final straw that becomes the excuse not to read on, and to rather put the script down and catch a few more minutes of sleep, or spend some extra time with the kids.
For the record, in Polish Andrzej is pronounced Ahn-dray and Wajda is pronounced Vy-duh… so correctly pronounced, (with the emphasis on the first syllable in both cases,) it is Ahn-dray Vy-duh.
HOW NOT TO COMPROMISE THE SPIRIT
How do we avoid this hiccup then without compromising the spirit of your screenplay? That’s your challenge as the writer – to find a solution that will work for both you and the reader. In this case a solution may be to call your character Andre, (a name that most English speakers are familiar with,) and tell the reader in your introductory character description that Andre speaks in a Polish accent. Have him order pierogis (Polish dumplings) or paczkis (filled doughnuts) when he’s in the coffee shop, and try to find other ways to incorporate details of Polish culture into his journey through the screenplay. That way you have a much more interesting and specifically Polish character, the reader has no problem reading and pronouncing his name rapidly, and the screenplay has an authentic Polish feel to it.
Of course if you’re writing for, or presenting your screenplay to, a Polish producer, go ahead and call the character Andrzej Wajda – they won’t have the same problems that an English speaker might.
The lesson here is to be aware of, and show respect to your reader, after all they could be the difference between your screenplay gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, and you taking your next holiday at an international destination of your choice.