Naming Your Characters

An article on character naming in The Write Practice blog got me thinking. The article discusses when and when not to name a character in your story. When you do need a character name, how do you come up with something unique, quirky, original?

photo of street art depicting the women of Troy.
Street art, downtown LA. Photo credit: Bob Gillen

Forget about the phone book. Go to IMDb.com (the Internet Movie Database). Choose a movie, any movie. Skip the cast list and scroll through the crew names. You’ll find dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of names for each film. Scan the list and select a few you find interesting. Mix up some first and last names. Avoid copying someone’s full name as it appears.

photo of large chess pieces
Chess pieces. Photo credit: Bob Gillen

You can also go global with IMDb. In your story you may have an American female character who meets up with a British man in a bar one evening. You need an appealing British name. Search for British films in IMDb, maybe something contemporary, such as the Harry Potter series or a BBC America television series.

photo of bronze - kids with dog
Kids with Dog. Photo credit: Bob Gillen

Check out the crew lists, especially in the graphic arts and CGI sections. Again, choose several interesting names and mix them around. What could you do in a bar setting with characters named Conor Prestwood or Nigel Meddings or Nic Bedwell? Contemporary films will likely have not only a larger crew list, but often a more diverse list. Movies shot in international locales, using local crews, will give you access to even more diverse name choices. The right character names will make your story all the more memorable.

Comedies Dark Blue and Pitch Black

“The whole female subject matter, female sexuality in an Irish film is untried territory… but that’s exciting to me to do something new,” says actor and playwright Laoisa Sexton of her debut play For Love. The play was staged off-Broadway by the Irish Repertory Theater in 2013.

Laoisa Sexton
Laoisa Sexton. Photo credit: copyright@trevormurphy.tv

Laoisa (pronounced Lee-sha) Sexton has written the screenplay for her stage play, and is now working to shoot it in Ireland. “I am working with the producer Paul Heller. He was the producer of Withnail and I, Harold and Maude, amongst others, and some of my favorite films. It is a big dream to get this achieved, and it’s been tough. A dark blue comedy, an unflinching look at three Irish working class women looking for love and sex in modern day Dublin is apparently a hard sell.”

Sexton’s play followed its New York run by touring six theaters in Ireland. “We hope to get another mount of the play in the next few months,” Sexton says, “as it was a huge hit. People come up to me still quoting lines from the play!”

From Acting to Storytelling

Moving from acting a role to creating a play comes naturally for Sexton. “I’m an actor and I think as an actor, and as a performer you know that you are a vehicle through which a writer tells stories. Your purpose is to help tell that story, that’s why you’re there, the only reason you’re there, that’s your purpose as an actor.

“Writing plays is just the next step for me as an actor. It’s certainly a way of getting to play characters that you want to play, too. Things you would not necessarily get cast in if it wasn’t your own. Writing helps make work. You create work for yourself and for others. That’s pretty amazing, ye know.

“Waiting around for the next job makes me anxious,” Sexton continues. “I’m only happy (well, let’s say focused, not lost) when I’m working… sad but true. It’s the way most actors are, but you must help yourself, create work, I have always done this in some way. I need to be working to stay a little bit sane.”

Performing is the Key

Sexton says of her playwriting, “Well, I’m an actress first, and writing is a relatively new discipline for me. I’m a voracious reader and I had written a few things before, but feel only now I’m getting to understand what it is or how it is to write a play. I really don’t know how anyone could be a playwright without being a performer.

“As a performer you are in the lucky position to be privy to so much, as you know what works on the stage, how you can affect an audience not just with language but also visually, delivery, through character, how you can manipulate your audience through character and behavior, so many things.

“It’s called a play for a reason, says Sexton. “Theater is elevated and should move, affect, lift in all kinds of ways. If something makes an audience happy, sad, angry, laugh, cry, uncomfortable, then to me the play has succeeded in some way.”

Laoisa Sexton in For Love
Laoisa Sexton in For Love. Photo credit: Show Business Weekly

First Come the Characters

“I don’t really set off to write a story, but I start with my characters, not necessarily themes. The themes come after, after I’ve mixed things up and had a bit of a Barney with myself.

“People are endlessly fascinating – what we do to each other, how we feel, hide, deal, love and hurt each other, what we are equipped for, how we do things without regard or consequence to other human beings. In a flash of an instant a person can make a decision that is hugely life changing, but somehow can do it so quickly without thinking it through.”

Avoiding Tired Settings

“I’m not really interested in writing plays that take place in living rooms or kitchens or in one place. I don’t need to see people boil kettles and answer the door to a nosey neighbor who is divulging information to drive a plot. I have seen that so many times. It’s the basis for all sitcom, isn’t it?  And seems so tired, so old fashioned, so done. And when I see that in a play I just think that writer is a bit lazy, unless they bring it to the next level.

“I like to push the idea of the stage in itself, and use certain conventions to bring you into different worlds, take you there… and to dance a little… dancing is important to me in my plays. Dancing in clubs, bedrooms, etc. It’s a way of dreaming… getting to your fantasy life… getting away from your real life… having another life. I guess it’s all about dreaming for me.”

Interacting With an Audience

“A play is different every night to a certain extent,” Sexton says, “mostly because of the energy of the audience and how they relate, react. Actors walk offstage every night talking about the audience, as audiences walk out of the theater talking about the actors and what they have experienced. It’s your job as an actor to make an audience listen to your story, to hit those notes that the director has guided you to, that you found in rehearsal. Sometimes it’s as simple as hit that word right and you have them (the audience). Simple is best, being clear.”

Comedies Dark Blue and Pitch Black

Sexton’s second play, The Last Days of Cleopatra, will be staged in New York in August of 2014. “It’s inspired by many things,” Sexton says, “and also my Mother’s death… sort of. It’s a pitch black comedy about love, sex, death, forgiveness, redemption and dancing. It’s about a Dublin family who don’t communicate. They are about to lose the one thing that’s holding them together.

the stage: The Last Days of Cleopatra
The Last Days of Cleopatra. Photo credit: copyright@trevormurphy.tv

“There are huge challenges in getting a new play produced in New York, hey in any city,” Sexton continues. “There is no real structure set up to help Irish artists who live here. You’re kind of in no man’s land. We had to do an Indiegogo campaign to go on tour to Ireland with For Love, as we did not receive any funding for any government organization, and the funding arts organizations in the United States told me to go to Irish sources, and the Irish funding opportunities are only for plays leaving Ireland. So our mates kicked in twenty dollars here and there, ye know.

“But no one is giving anyone a hand out, ye know. It’s just the way the arts are. You have to find ways around things, support and allies to help you, believe that it will happen and put it out there, get all the duckies in a row and push forward. It’s a fight to do your own work, new work. You might get lucky, you will definitely get hurt, but if it’s something you need to do, you will find a way. That has been my experience.

Georganne Aldrich Heller is coproducing The Last Days of Cleopatra. She is a brilliant lady and I worked with her as an actress a few times. We did a great show together, Ladies & Gents (performed in the toilets in Central Park), and also produced with the Irish Arts Centre. It was a massive hit. She’s an amazing lady as she has such a love of new Irish plays and likes daring new work and champions new Irish work.

“Theater is a labor of love. Anyone who’s in it knows it. You can’t be in it for the money (unless doing a huge commercial Disneyesque production on Broadway, and even those can fail). I don’t think any real artists are in it for the money, or start out that way anyway. Money is great, and I know there are people out there who are doing it for cash or notoriety or to get women or whatever.”

A Night Out in a Frilly Dress

“But I think if you truly value your craft you can see that at the end of the day you will get those things in time maybe (if that’s what you’re after), but you need to work hard at what you do. Real artists, at least the ones I admire and look up to, are the ones that care and who are ruled by passion and the need to do something great and put something good out there, even if they fail. They don’t care about the red carpet or worldly possessions. All those things are great when you have worked hard, but at the end of the day that’s just a night out in a frilly dress. They are just little extras. But you just do what you need to do, to be.

“I like to try and push things all the time. This new play is a little stylized in terms of style, language, delivery. People will laugh and cry and hopefully dance. Dancing is good. This one was inspired by the Samuel Beckett quote, ‘Dance first, think later…it’s the natural order’.

“I think a play should be just that: chat about stuff, fight about stuff, feel, and then maybe dance a little.”

A True Wanderer

“I am kind of adept at dealing with change and chaos,” says Sexton. “I was adopted by Irish parents in Québec and moved to Ireland where I grew up all over. We moved around a lot (an understatement). I went to a ton of different schools all over Ireland and we were never really in one place for very long. We lived in the country and in cities. We never owned houses.

“Actually we lived in an abandoned hotel once, on the west coast of Ireland. It was very eerie I remember. I was only a child but it was like the film The Shining. My Da actually got the place exorcized as there was a ‘presence’ as he called it. Not that I was told this until I was grown up, but there was one room which was very cold, and you could definitely sense something was weird in certain corridors. We all felt it. Anyways that’s another play.

“I suppose I’m a very energetic person. Maybe that’s why. I’m not sure how it affects my storytelling but I like living different places. It’s definitely the best thing a person can do… travel. I could actually be on tour for long stretches of time and be okay with it.

The Last Days of Cleopatra
Laoisa Sexton in The Last Days of Cleopatra. Photo credit: copyright@trevormurphy.tv

“I now live in New York, writing stories that take place in Ireland. They are not necessarily Irish stories, but take place there, as that is what I know. I like to write in a place, with a feeling of that place, with the music of that place, the accent of that place. To me it’s not so much an accent but the rhythm that instructs the piece and that is I suppose what I know, no matter where I am.”

Writing Away From Home

“Also maybe it’s true that you can look at a place better when you are away from it. I mean some of the best Irish writers wrote the best Irish books living in other places in Europe, and yet their concerns were life in Ireland or the stories were saturated in Irish life, like Ulysses. Indeed some of the best writers wrote the best stories in exile, not just Irish ones. I suppose you can kind of look at things better from a distance, or maybe not look but maybe see.

“I like to think I am writing a new play, not just an Irish play, cos a lot of the themes are universal, ye know, not just Irish.

“It’s funny, I am writing a new one about this alcoholic megalomaniac, and all the women in his life, the damage he causes. I showed a bit of it to someone and they said that it was very brittle and the character was unforgiving, but yet we look at old Irish plays like Juno and The Paycock. The Da Captain Boyle is often portrayed as a lovable rogue, but yet he is a lowly alcoholic and has betrayed his family. But when you do that in new plays, people get offended and tell you it’s cruel. But if someone is wearing a costume and it’s an old play with beautiful flowery language it’s okay.

A Rich Violent History

“I think it’s important to write about modern Ireland and my generation. Who we really are. We have a rich violent history, but we are not a country of red heads sitting around staring into the flames in a thatched cottage. There are so many stories to tell that are new and fresh and there is a huge new crop of Irish writers that are doing that.”

More on Laoisa Sexton:

The Last Days of Cleopatra on Facebook. The play premiers at Urban Stages August 20 to September 7. See the Facebook page for ticket information.

Sexton is also shooting a short film You Are Beautiful. See the Facebook page.

All photo credits: Copyright@trevormurphy.tv