The problem with character names

A dirty secret: I’m terrible at creating character names. I freeze up and overthink it, trying to come up with something that avoids the trappings of cheap symbolism (oh, Cast Away and your “Chuck Noland”) and doesn’t use the names of friends, family, or past acquaintances (I’m terrified of this, even though I know nobody will ever ask “hey, was that character supposed to be me?”) I freak out over every syllable, preventing me from moving forward whenever I have a scene where a new character enters.

Worse, I have a tendency when writing comedy to lean – heavily – toward the silly, which is a bad, bad, bad idea. When it comes to naming characters, silliness only works for one man: Will Ferrell. Anchorman alone is a master’s class in how to craft ridiculous names without being obvious about it. (Oh, you can also note that W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx managed to get away with stuff like “Larson E. Whipsnade” and “Rufus T. Firefly,” but those guys are genius exceptions.) On the other end of the spectrum, there’s me, forever wanting to paste together random, goofy-sounding syllables (“Bob Flankjack”? “Don Herngerb”? Really, Dave?) or, worse, names that call attention to their own terribleness. (“Pistachio Disguisey”, anyone?)

Inhumanich! practically begs for goofy character names, which is why I must fight that desire. And so I move on to my second plan of character name attack: I steal them.

What I’ve done is paste together first and last names that jump out at me. Instead of using, say, a phone book (they still make ’em, ya know!), I’ve found inspiration in the opening credits of the 1950 adventure Rocketship X-M, which I was watching last night to get in the retro sci-fi mood. A visit to the film’s IMDB page later, and I’m loaded up with new names like “Joe Neumann”, “Bill Corrigan”, and “Bert Stevens”.

Not all the movie’s character names are cut-and-paste jobs, though; I can proudly say I whipped up a few more all on my own. And Joe’s name is indeed a bad symbolic joke, suggested by Creative Loafing‘s Curt Holman, but it’s so wonderfully goofy I couldn’t pass it up.

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