Tag Archives: character

That which we call a rose, by any other name…

This is a tip for authors.  Specifically it’s for playwrights, but it might be applied (with caution) to other fields of writing.

Our editors and proof readers keep finding inconsistencies in character names.  It’s not just an issue for first-time writers; we see this from experienced writers as well.  There are, of course, some identifiable causes.  During the writing process, names may change over time.  A character may have an official name, but (legitimately) be addressed by other characters using a nickname or diminutive.  A name may, in the wild, have multiple spellings; the writer may use several variations in the course of a script.  Misspellings of names are not necessarily caught by a spell checker.  The result is that speeches for the same character get assigned to multiple names.  Whilst a decent proof reader or editor will catch most of them, they may not catch them all, and, in any case, they should not have to.  It is the writer’s job to decide who they are writing about, to choose a character name, and stick to it.  (It’s the writer’s choice; a writer in two minds should not force the editor to arbitrate.)

So, what can a writer do to check a finished text for name consistency?
This tip assumes that you are using Microsoft Word.  (I’ve created the examples using Word 2007.  Other versions of Word will behave similarly.)  Other wordprocessors will do similar things, but you’ll need to find the controls for yourself.  (It also assumes that you’ve written a play!  If you work in another genre, you’ll need to decide how to apply this.)


What we’re going to do is to find every instance of every character name that should be in the play and we’re going to colour it red.  Any name that is left (in a speech assignment or direction) that isn’t in red is likely to be a mistake of some sort (either a mistake in the character name or a character missing from the character list.)

Find and Replace Basics

Open your script in Word and go to the Characters’ page – the one with the list of character names.
Open the Find and Replace window (hereafter, with Microsoft spelling, called a Dialog).  The keyboard shortcut to do this is Ctrl H.  It will probably look like this.

Expand the dialog by clicking on the [More >>] button.  That will get you to the options we’re going to use.

Find the Lady

In our example, we’re going to find Cinderella.  So we type Cinderella into the Find box.

I’ve also checked the “Match case” box.  In some cases, this may help.  (Firstly it may help you identify character names with case errors.  Secondly, if you have a name that is also a common word or part of a common word, it avoids most instances – for example the syllable “King” may be a character name or may be part of “thinking”.)


The Lady in Red

Now we’re going to replace Cinderella with Cinderella – but we’re going to format the text so that it appears in red.

With your cursor in the “Replace with” box, you can change the replace formatting by (obviously) clicking on the [Format] button and, from there, select “Font…”

Another dialog pops up, in which you can set the font colour.  (Although of course the dialog wants you to set the font color.)


I happen to have chosen Dark Red.  Chose something that stands out for you – and a colour that you haven’t used for any other purpose.  (And what other purpose would you have for coloured text?)
Click [Okay] to return to the main dialog.
Click on [Replace All] and all your Cinderellas will blush dark red.

Rinse and Repeat

Follow the above steps for all the characters named in your character list.
When you’ve done that, you are ready to look at the text.  What you should see, is red text at the start of every line of speech (and everywhere else a character name is mentioned).  However, what you may see is something like this…

What stands out there is a different name for the same character.  Correct it!  Check the whole script, correcting as you go.

Clean up

Finally, when you’ve checked and corrected, go back to the Find and Replace dialog.  This time in the “Find what“ box,  clear all the text but set the Find [Format] to find the font colour Dark Red (or whatever you used.)

In the “Replace with” box, clear the text and set the replace font colour to “Auto” (usually another word for Black, assuming that Black is your default font colour).

[Replace All], and you will have cleaned up all the ruddy text.

In Character

At the start of every play there is (or at least, there should be, even for a monologue), a list of roles.  The main point of this list is to tell the reader who’s in the play.  The reader might be a producer, director or actor, it might also be the publicist for a show.  I have some strong views about what should be in this list – and what should not.  These are opinions, of course, but they are based on some degree of rationality…

They’re Characters

I take the view that ‘cast‘ means the actors who play the characters.  The list should therefore be headed ‘Characters’.  (You could also say Dramatis Personae, but only if you want to sound pompous.)

Name Names

I know it sounds obvious, but the character list should list every character, preferably by name, but certainly with a clear tie to the way lines are assigned in the body of the script.  Thus if the lines are assigned to “Man”, the Character list should include “Man” (rather than Mr Smith), though it would be better to give him a name in both places.  (When I wrote that in another post, Andrew Allen took to Twitter (@my_grayne) with the excellent response “I always name characters if for no other reason than: ‘Helen’ looks better on an actor’s CV than ‘Woman 4’”)

There really is nothing like a dame!Elementary Sexism

If a character’s gender is essential to the plot and not obvious from the name, then it needs to be stated in the character list (because you really don’t want to make a fool of the casting director).
Sam could be male or female, and if this matters, it is better to say which.  Mrs Bonaventure is obviously female, so you don’t need to comment on gender unless your character is a drag artiste.

Relationship Status

The relationship between characters can be useful, usually as a pointer to relative age.  For example describing Gemma as ‘Steve’s daughter’ puts some useful constraints on casting.  (But how old is Gemma?  If it’s germane to the plot, then ‘Steve’s teenage daughter’ or ‘Steve’s adult daughter’ is appropriate but more constraining.)
It isn’t Complicated
Describing Liz as ‘Steve’s third wife, previously married to Anton and having an affair with Carl’ is mainly information that the reader should discover in the text.  (And if it isn’t part of the plot, then it’s irrelevant.)  Usually ‘Steve’s wife’ will be enough.

A wicked squireRole in the play

Squire Blackheart – the Villain.
If the characters are not related to one another, it may be useful to say the role that they play in the drama.  This may, in the above melodramatic example, be a generic type (useful in things like pantomime – Principal Boy, Principal Girl, Dame – because it tells the reader what to expect from the role.)  It may also be a job, because it helps the reader to distinguish between ‘Sister Louise – a nun’ and ‘Sister Sara – a nurse’.


If a character’s age is essential to the plot, then it should be stated in the character list, either as a very specific age, or as a range.  (The broader the range, the less essential it would seem to be – and ‘relationship’ would be the more likely determinant of casting.
I am rather cautious about putting in ages, and I have a general feeling that this should be the last item in most descriptions.  The reason for this is that one of the potential uses of the character list is for the publicist to copy and paste into the programme for the show.  In that case, age may be a distraction – it may have been useful to the director in casting the roles, but once they’re cast, they are what they are.

Lose the Plot

The character list should not reveal the plot.  Get rid of anything that hasn’t happened yet that will happen in the story.  Get rid of any secrets that will be revealed by the script: ‘Paul the gardener, Ingrid’s long-lost son’ is plot.  Imagine that cut and pasted into the programme for the show.  This is not the place to give it away.

Eschew Adjectives

The character list is not the place for a pen-portrait of your character.  If you find yourself writing ‘she is timid, but anxious to please and to be liked’ then delete it.  That part of the character’s behaviour should be evident in the script, and the actor should be encouraged to find it there.  You should not use the character list to tell the reader something they can’t find in the text.  If there’s an essential back story and it isn’t in the text, how is the actor supposed to communicate it to the audience?  (Even if you put it in the show programme, not everyone buys one and not everyone absorbs every word before the curtain rises.)
A show of hands for AbanazaThere is a case to be made for giving a character portrait for cases where a casting call might occur before the actors have seen the script, but if you wish to do that, it belongs in production notes at the end of the text, not in the character list.  Likewise costume descriptions belong in production notes, not in the character list.
The one thing that might be legitimate in the character list is some physical characteristic that is essential to the plot (so, for example, if Gary must be taller than Jeff, that’s important to casting).

The Final Test

Does the description fit on a single line?  If not, it’s far too long.  This encompasses all of the above points, but is also an aesthetic choice – if each description fits on one line, it just looks better.

Why Ian didn’t know Jack

I’m returning to the subject of character names in plays.  What?  Me?  Obsessive?  Oh, all right then…  My particular obsession is that names tie a person to an era, so naturally I am going to start with a few words about where that observation does not apply.

There is, of course, a melodramatic tradition of allegorical names, where the characters are labelled by their virtue or vice.  Think back to the 17th Century and The Pilgrim’s Progress, with characters like Faithful and Piety.  (Mind you, such names leaked into reality at the time – think of the Barebone’s Parliament, named after one of its members, the short version of whose name was Praise-God Barebone.)  There is also a habit in some farces of giving characters ridiculous names (diving into the first one on my list, The Affairs at Meddler’s Top by Richard Coleman, we find Trellis Trelawney and Bouffant Eclair). In farce, it’s a matter of the writer having fun with the names (and possibly also avoiding any possibility of libelling real people).

No, my real concern here is for fictional names that are supposed to sound real.  I gave an outline of the issue in an earlier post.  Since then I’ve been casting around for some statistical backing for my intuition, and eventually found it via the Office for National Statistics (bless their cotton socks).  From here on, all the statistics come from England and Wales using the first given name only.

The children born in any particular year are given a huge range of names.  Take 1996: there were 296 000 girls who each had one of 4957 names.  The spread of boys names is smaller – 319 000 boys with 3713 names.Cumulative Frequency of the Lads of 1996

What you see from the graph is that there’s an enormous tail – lots of names with very few people attached to them.  That tail includes 851 names (from Albion to Ziggy) each given to only three people that year.  The tail also covers a lot of ethnic minority names (from a lot of ethnic minorities) and the names bestowed by the sort of eccentric parents who believe that their child’s life will be so much better if they spell Alec as Alick.

Looking at the other end of the graph, The most common name (Jack) accounted for over 10 000 souls – that’s 3.4% of all boys named in 1996.  The top 30 names accounted for 50% of all boys.  Extending that to 100 names, you cover 76% of all boys from that year.

From the point of view of naming characters in a play or a novel, if you pick a name from the top 100, it rightly feels at home in the year.  Pick one from outside the top 100 and, whilst it is entirely possible (you have the remaining 3613 to choose from), any individual name is very unlikely.  For example, it would be possible to name a boy Tarquin in 1996 – indeed three families did – but the chances of finding one in the general population of that year would be less than 0.001%.

Whilst the pattern of the long tail remains fairly constant from year to year, the names in the top 100 can shift dramatically.  However, girls’ names are much more changeable than boys’ in this respect.  The following graphs show position in the top 100 (with number 1 at the top).  Take a look at John.John in the Top 100 names

John spent four decades at the very top of the popularity charts before a slow decline. (When I was a student, in a population of 48 men sharing a hall of residence, five were called John.  They were commonly known in the Welsh manner by a secondary characteristic: John the Miner, John the Post Graduate, John the Milkman, John the Engine Driver and Little John.)

Arthur in the Top 100 namesArthur has declined so far that he has fallen out of the top 100…

Ryan  in the Top 100 namesWhereas Ryan has risen.

Ian  in the Top 100 namesIan rose and then fell…

Jack in the Top 100 names… whereas Jack declined and was resurrected.
(Which is why, around the 1960s, Ian didn’t know Jack.)

As I said, it is entirely possible to find outliers.  Uncommon names are still valid names.  However, it becomes less likely to find a set of uncommon names together.  Imagine that you are writing a story about five friends.  If they were born in 2004, the most popular names were Jack, Joshua, Thomas, James and Daniel.  Together those names account for 15% of the 2004 cohort.  For simplicity, assume it’s 3% each.
The probability of finding any one of those five in a group of five is 3% times the number of tries – so 3% * 5 = 15%.

If we’ve found one of them, what’s the probability of finding another?
Well, we have four goes, so 3% * 4 = 12%

And so on through 9% for the third name, 6% for the fourth and 3% for the fifth.

The chances of finding them all together in a group of only five people is the product of the probabilities:-
15% * 12% * 9% * 6% * 3% = 0.0003%

That doesn’t sound very likely (and it’s not, in the sense that there are 3708 other names that could be in the same group) however, that is more likely than any other group of five names for that year!
Take for example the top five from 1964: David, Paul, Andrew, Mark and John.  They are all still in the top 100 for 2004, but their combined share of the name market in 2004 is down from 15% to 2.8% – an average of less than 0.6% each.
Applying the same logic as above, the probability of finding them together as an exclusive group is only 0.00000007%

Or, to put it another way, the probability of finding Jack and his group together amongst the 2004 cohort is more than 4000 times more likely than finding David and his group.

The more likely that the names belong together, the more credible your story.

Spreadsheets of the Top 100 Girls’ and Boys’ names (1904 to 2004) are available on the Lazy Bee Scripts publishing pages.

How Old is Susan?

The Unknown SusanSome years ago, Alan Weeks and I got obsessed with frequencies of names.  Alan did the analysis and found that the most common names in North Baddesley were Patricia and Margaret.  Later, I took this further by predicting demographics on the basis of name frequency: there is a fashion in the naming of children, as in so much else, so you can make a reasonable prediction of age based on popularity of name.  (Margaret was most probably a child of the 1930s or 40s, Patricia peaked in the 40s or 50s.)

This becomes relevant to play-writing in the business of naming characters.  Names need to match the ages of the characters in the era in which they are set.  So, for example, in England, peak Susan happened in about 1955.  That means that for a play set in 2014, you would expect most Susans to be in their late fifties to early sixties.  A Susan who is eighteen seems out of place.  Now, of course, if you want to disturb your audience, then giving a character an unexpected name may be a legitimate ploy, but if you want immediate acceptance, then the name, age and era need to match.

Being fashion accessories, names are cyclic.  Violet went out of fashion in the 1920s along with Doris but seems to be staging a come-back.  Sam (for men) peaked even earlier, alongside Phyllis (not for men!) and started a major return in the 1980s.  Being cautious about this, there are always a few outliers.  There are the out-of-era names given in honour of an ancestor, and there are the names that don’t really fit in any era: I was idling after a tour of Monterey Bay Aquarium when I overheard a mother admonish her child with “Stop that, Amadeus!”

Fashions for names vary enormously with geography.  I was careful to specify England with respect to Susans.  I once called on someone named Phyllis, expecting to be greeted by a nonagenarian only to find a Scotswoman in her early thirties.  Names in the USA are more diverse and are not synchronised with England; hence I was once discomforted to find myself working with a Doris who was younger than me.  It becomes even more difficult when dealing with names from non-Anglophone countries.  There was, for example, my business correspondence with a Dutchwoman called Anne; turned-out to be a bloke with a moustache.