My God, they were talking about killing Superman. It was one of those get-to-know-you producer/writer lunches with, pleasantly, no set agenda. They were experienced, earnest executives, at a top-name production company. They were happily sharing with us their plot ideas while wooing us with food and drink. They shall remain nameless because I believe them to be creatively bankrupt imbeciles who should be shot on sight if they ever stray within twenty feet of a true story meeting --
But to be fair, that's due to their actions on another project, and so is beside the point. The point here is they had a story where their villain actually was going to kill Superman. Just like that. Dead. Superman, lying there on the ground with little 'x's for eyes. Ted and I were aghast. "Superman doesn't die," Ted said. "That's what makes him Superman." But their story needed for him to die, they explained. Or the story wouldn't work. Okay. Fine. Heck, they paid for the lunch. The least we could do was try to help. So we invoked the concept of the impressive failure. In plotting an action-adventure type film, how your hero fails is at least as important as how he succeeds. If the plot requires the hero to fail, try to figure out a way for him to fail as impressively as possible.
Consider RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Indiana Jones is perhaps the greatest action hero in the history of the movies. And in his debut film, he flat-out fails from beginning to end. He loses the golden idol. Marian is kidnapped and he's unable to rescue her. He finds the Ark, but it is immediately taken away. His bluff to destroy the Ark is called, and he gets recaptured. He can't even look upon the Ark when it is opened. And the government ends up with his long sought-after and much suffered-for prize. This guy's an action hero? Yup. Because he fails so damn impressively, from start to finish. Indy fails so well, in fact, the audience is impressed as hell, and hardly aware of the fact that he's failing. The defeats are just setbacks that create more opportunities for heroism. As an added benefit, Indy wins the audience's sympathy -- the poor guy's trying so hard, you can't help but root for him. Consider, on the other hand, the action adventure film WATERWORLD. Is Mariner, the Kevin Costner character, heroic? Undoubtedly. Through quick-thinking and quick acting, he saves his prized sailboat. He escapes from certain death, and manages to sail out of a floating atoll under attack (without even the aid of any wind -- now that's amazing!) He recognizes and avoids a clever trap set to catch him. Oh, sure, he succeeds magnificently -- But how does he fail? Miserably. Mariner's main 'failure' in the movie has to be the destruction of his boat, and the loss of the little kid with the tattoo map. And how does it happen? Oh, he just happens to leave both unattended while he goes sight-seeing underwater for no really good reason. Upon his return, the villain's got the drop on him. Ugh. That 'failure' did nothing for the Mariner character. The audience actually loses sympathy for the hero, witnessing a idiotic move like that. And it wasn't a particularly satisfying victory for the villain, either. If you make your villain truly near-impossible to beat, your hero's various failed attempts can come across as amazing.
And a point to keep in mind is that actors will someday read your script, with a very critical eye toward the quality of their roles. For the most part they're looking for characters that are powerful and effective (and affecting!) rather than bumbling. I'm reading a screenplay right now, an adventure film, where the hero manages to get himself mistakenly captured four times in the first sixty pages. What actor is going to want to play a role like that?
The actions and decisions of the characters are what create the basic situations of the story. Those key moments are where the plot really happens. The audience wants to know, so, how does the guy get in trouble? And how does he get out of it? It's at those 'turning point' parts of a script that my 'story sense' radar is at its highest. And I'm amazed at how cavalier some writers (and producers) can be about those crucial moments.
Like killing off Superman, for example. (As an aside, what is it that draws people to classic properties, only to then get excited about screwing them up? Call it SES, the Starship Enterprise Syndrome. The thought process goes, "Cool! We get to make a film about the Starship Enterprise!" "Bitchin'!" "So, what should we do with it?" "Uh, I got it... let's blow it up!" No... how about instead you tell a great story, a classic story that does justice to the franchise?) Oh, well. Anyway. So we've got Superman. And we have to kill him off. Ted and I suggested that the only way we'd ever buy Superman getting killed was if he wanted to get killed. If he himself chose to be killed, for some greater purpose.
So what if this villain was so superior, so evil, so formidable, that Superman knew the only way he could possibly win was by allowing himself to be killed? A noble sacrifice, for the greater good of mankind. A final, glorious chess move in the life of the greatest hero of all time. Yes, the villain thinks he's victorious -- but he is in fact only planting the seeds of his own future defeat.
Instead of Superman's murder being a low point of the movie, a tragedy, it becomes a high point, his greatest triumph. Victory in defeat. Leave it to screenwriters, I guess, to be grinning over a story point with a bunch of executives, giddy and pleased over coming up with a clever new way to lose. The impressive failure. It's what being a hero is all about.
You thought maybe I was going to regale you with tales of lunching with Tom Hanks and partying with Winona Ryder? Casually let on about shooting hoops with Barry Sonnenfeld, discuss the quality of Chevy Chase's tan, or brag about exchanging magician secrets with Frank Marshall?
Nope. The title of this column is just a ploy, a trick to get you started reading a collection of minor insights in the field of onomastics, the study of proper names. And now that I've got you here, I'll try to hook you with an inspirational quote:
Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. -- W.H. AUDEN 1907-1973
With the exception of your screenplay's title (and the occasional brilliant bit of dialog), character names have the potential to contain the most creativity, symbolism and style in the tightest amount of space. It might surprise some screenwriters to know that, for the first week or so starting a film project, my writing partner and I do nothing but work out character names. And we're not just trying to avoid writing!
A name is like a tightly-wound DNA molecule, capable of conveying information about characterization, tone, story and theme. Naming your characters is a crucial creative task.
T.S. Elliot chose the name J. Alfred Prufrock in part because it implied a 'prude in a frock,' and captured the fastidiousness of the character.
John Updike chose the name Angstrom for the protagonist of his Rabbit novels because it brought to mind 'angst', and suggested the first name of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
Consider these excerpts from a review of the film THE PROFESSIONAL in Arthur Taussig's newsletter, "Film Analyst":
"[T]he names of the two main characters -- Leon and Mathilda -- are so symbolically loaded that they alone can give us considerable insight into the film. Notice that the initials -- L, M -- are not only in alphabetical order, but neighbors in the alphabet. We can see from this arrangement that there is not only a closeness between them, but it is appropriate for things to flow from the L to the M, following alphabetical order, that is, from Leon to Mathilda...
"While the origin of Leon's name is pretty obvious, 'of the lion,' it is surprising how the various meanings of the name clearly define his character... The classical Jungian interpretation of the lion, derived from the animal's role in various traditions and systems, is one of tremendous energy combined with serene self-control, an aggressor against whom all are defenseless, an opponent who always destroys. Another perfect description of Leon...
"[Mathilda]'s internal masculine is awakened and she transforms from a passive, victimized child to an active, self-possessed, and caring young woman (exactly what happens to the female hero of THE TERMINATOR  also under the tutelage of an assassin). Appropriately enough in this context, Mathilda's name means 'mighty battle maid'."
Perhaps I have erred in including such a lengthy excerpt in this column. Let me make it up to Mr. Taussig by advertising the excellent quality of his newsletter. He writes reviews of current and past movies, analyzing them from a psychological perspective. I don't always agree with his opinion -- and you won't, either -- but it is always informative. Anyone who's trying to write good screenplays should subscribe NOW, and probably order all the back issues as well. His multi-part analysis of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST should be required reading in all film schools.
You can get a one-year subscription (12 issues) by sending US$15.00 to A.T.W. Publications, 2404 Narbonne Way, Costa Mesa, CA 92627-1424. Tell 'em Wordplay sent ya!
Okay, back to work. When Ted and I are mapping out character names for a screenplay, we have two main concerns: the names need to be both distinctive and appropriate.
Distinctive names are names that intrigue -- and not just the audience, but the screenwriter as well. Thus 'Lee Danzinger' as a protagonist might stimulate the imagination more than, say, 'Robert Wilson.'
It helps, of course, to have a distinctive character to begin with. But sometimes it can work the other way -- a really unique name can suggest a unique character. Richard Bach reportedly wrote down the name 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' one day, without knowing anything about the book he eventually was inspired to write.
'Distinctive' also refers to the collection of names within a particular screenplay. Do everybody a favour and don't name your four leads EVAN SMITH, GLEN SAUNDERS, SARAH LANDRY, and SETH EVANS. Look to create memorable names by varying sound, number of syllables, ethnic origin. Don't be afraid to use nicknames or descriptive phrases for the minor characters (sometimes just THE TALL MAN is best). In general, if it's memorable, it's probably a good idea.
Simple enough, right? Okay. Character names also need to be appropriate. BILLY NEWMAN, for example, might not quite work for an experienced, crafty old-guard power broker; perhaps something along the lines of JACOB TATE would be better. It's important to at least be aware of the message you're sending the audience by the names you choose. Most proper names carry with them strong connotations, either based upon their origins or from previous use.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote a short story featuring a detective named Sherrinford Holmes, and his sidekick, Ormond Sacker. But neither name brought any useful connotations to the characters. Later, he hit upon the tenacious, smart-sounding 'Sherlock,' and his trusty, staid-and-solid sidekick 'Watson.'
You might also want to make use of a book such as the Writer's Digest "Character Naming Sourcebook". There you can discover that, for example, 'Quentin' means 'from the Queen's estate,' and 'Osbert' means 'divinely brilliant.' It's a particularly good source for non-English names.
Okay, now a word of caution: you want to avoid being too overt with your character names. Hollywood is awash with screenplays where ADAM STEELE battles GUIDO GRUBER, all the while resisting the charms of temptress DIANA HUNTER, finally ending the film safe in the arms of WENDY HAVENS. From my reading days, I can tell you that when a character named LUCIEN or DEVLIN shows up in some script, it won't be long until he makes a deal to buy someone's soul.
Raise your sights a little higher, and with a little effort, you can do better. Charles Dickens is perhaps the foremost English-speaking master of onomastics. Writing "A Christmas Carol," Dickens tried out three other possibilities before settling on the name of Bob Cratchit's crippled son: Little Larry, Small Sam and Puny Pete.
The goal is to be subtle, but effective. A few of my favorite character names follow. Note that in each case, the names effectively fit the characters... and yet the names still sound real:
NED RACINE, the sleazy lawyer played by William Hurt in BODY HEAT. Perhaps the last name brings to mind the word 'rancid'?
JOEL GOODSON, the All-American boy next door in RISKY BUSINESS. 'Good-son' is obvious, and maybe even too on the mark. Luckily it doesn't get spoken that much. 'Joel' is a nice, innocent-sounding first name.
SAM SPADE is a detective -- just the person you'd want to dig up facts, right?
ROY NEARY in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Roy is a good, Mr. Everyman U.S.A. kind of name. And is it any surprise that a guy named 'Neary' has a close encounter?
TODD MINASSIAN. I'm proud of this effort from one of our own films, LITTLE MONSTERS. It's a somewhat stock character, the nerdy best friend. We liked how 'Todd' rhymes with 'odd,' and that the last name calls to mind getting into a mess.
Strangely, some of the best, most appropriate character names these days come from real life. Lorena Bobbitt -- well that's obvious. Joey Buttafucco is absurdly correct. Bob Dole, a fiscally conservative politician? Sure. And could there be a better name for a Hollywood Madam than Heidi Fleiss? Senator Bob Packwood... you probably couldn't even get away with that in a script.
There's a limit, of course, to how much a character name can do for you. It helps to back up your name choice with insightful characterization, solid storytelling, effective filmmaking. One of the best ways, clearly, to 'name' your characters, and make them memorable, is to surround them with a classic movie!
Character naming is just one set of decisions among the millions you will make in writing your script. But it's a set of decisions that should not be ignored and left to chance. Character naming is a tool. Don't stumble over it, pick it up and use it...
Because Shakespeare was wrong, you know. The sweetness of the rose does depend on calling it a rose.
This is the movie business we're in, after all. Things aren't just what they are -- they are what they seem to be.