One of the things that most perplexed me about screenwriting was introducing my main character. Often, I find myself intimidated by getting seemingly one shot to introduce the protagonist that is supposed to lead us for the next hundred minutes of precious time. You don’t want to get it wrong, but after reading so many scripts, you wonder whether there is actually a “wrong.”
Tonight I finished the first draft of my first feature length screenplay! All 127 glorious pages.
Upon recommendation from a writing colleague, I picked up a book — you know the type. The kind of book that is supposed to help guide you through the trials and tribulations of being a writer. The kind of book that will give you great insights into the world of scribedom, and helps you hope that one day, you too will be a paid laugh-maker, scream-inducer, or tear-jerker.
Two weeks ago, I finished an amazing program, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Professional Program in producing. My 50+ classmates and I were met with a fairly rigorous schedule: 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., four nights a week, for 10 weeks. Personally, I didn’t go to film school, unlike quite a few of my classmates. This IS my film school. So I was pretty grateful to learn as much as possible, despite the fact that I was exhausted half the time.
At the end of 10 weeks, my UCLA two-subject notebook is now filled, cover to cover, with notes, lecture quotes, budgets, handouts, lists, diagrams, and reminders. I cannot fully encapsulate the things I learned — – it was a good amount of information — but here are the things that stick out to me, looking back.
Over some Kibbe and Falafel on Thursday, Adam and I got into a little discussion focused mainly on naming characters. It seems that we are about 90% in agreeance over one thing: female characters’ names in films have become fairly pretentious.
His theory is that if you want an every-woman character — a name that won’t be distracting, to script readers and theater-goers alike — go with one of the more popular names for a person born during the time period in which the character would have been born. So, if I were writing about a current/incoming high school student (which I will be soon) for a script I figure I’d complete in 2012, I would choose a name that was fairly popular in 1998 (BTW, I was in high school in 1998). In the case of my coming-of-age script that I’m working on (yeah, yeah, the world has plenty of coming-of-age stories) my lead female character’s name is Vanessa. According to the Social Security Administration, Vanessa was the 52nd most popular name among American babies in 1998; mid-range, considering the top 100.
But we don’t necessarily always want an every-woman. Some writers, like some parents, want our children/characters to be interesting straight outta the womb (take “Sue” from this pretty awesome short a classmate of mine did, for example). The lead female character for another script I’m working on is named Harper. This name, Adam took issue with, but I don’t think Harper is really that ridiculous for a name. Maybe a decade ago, that would be a seriously pretentious name. In 2004, it was the 887th most popular baby name in the U.S. Last year it was #119. So in 5 years, it may be even more common (but then again, can pretention also be common? Vice versa?)
I just finished reading Freakonomics, which has a lot of fascinating insights on race, class, gender, morality, and, most interestingly, parenting. In the chapter titled, “Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” I made a bit of a connection: While some people may believe that “black” names (like DeShawn or Imani) may have a detrimental effect on the children who receive them, the real correlation seems to be a socioeconomic indicator; “good” parents put a lot of emphasis on picking a name, and “good” parents tend to be better educated in general, and can provide decent opportunities for those children. Furthermore, I don’t think DeShawn or Imani are bad names. I know good people with those names! In either case, the parents who give their children strong or “smart” sounding names tend to care more about their kids anyway, and they share a more aspirational attitude/goals for those kids. If I were writing about a stripper living in a trailer park in Daytona Beach, I’d probably name her Krystal or Jazmynn. If I were writing about a Yale-bound, cello-playing snobby 16-year-old, I’d probably name her Eleanora or Madison; quite presidential.
Names of characters tend to have several indications: the tone of the film, the essence of a character, and who wrote the script. I thought about some of my personal favorite comedies/romantic comedies of the last few years, and the names of the female leads:
Cady (Lindsay Lohan)
Olive (Emma Stone)
500 Days of Summer
Summer (Zooey Deschanel)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Clementine (Kate Winslet)
Em (Kristen Stewart)
Kill Bill, Vol 1 &2 — yes, I know this is not a comedy.
The Bride/Beatrix (Uma Thurman)
Jules (Emma Stone)
Gracie (Sandra Bullock)
Lost in Translation
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson)
Elle (Reece Witherspoon)
The Devil Wears Prada
Andy (Anne Hathaway)
I would venture to say that none of these names are in the top 50 names for females in the probable years that each character would have been born. If anything, these names indicate, to me, that writers and authors are affluent, educated, and tend to indicate that in their own characters. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. In Freakonomics, sixish of the names listed above are also listed below with the average number of years of formal education that the mother who chose the names also had:
– Clementine (16.23)*
– Charlotte (14.98)
– Beatrix (16.26)*
– Ellen/Ella for Elle Woods (averaged to 15.235)
– Olive (15.64)
So yes, some of these A-List writers like Burt Royal, Charlie Kauffman, and Uma Thurman/Quentin Tarantino are effing geniuses.
The names with the * indicate that they were among the list of the “Twenty White Girl Names That Best Signify High-Education Parents.” Interestingly, despite my blackness, my name was the eighth most popular “White Girl” name in 1980. In 2000, the 8th most popular name was Emma. I’m sure by now, #8 is Mackenzie. Names that indicate affluence supposedly trickle down from the upper class down to the masses, kind of like how Forever 21 knocks off a beautiful Gucci dress. And, just like fashion, one day you’re in, the next day, you are out.
So, my point is that while I agree that the unique, quirky names have gotten out of hand — in real life, and in books and film — I don’t think Harper is really all ridiculous. In fact, I’m just ahead of the curve.