What’s In A Name?

I’m pretty sure that everyone writing fiction has at some time been stumped for a name for a character. It has to feel right for the character, match his or her personality, age, socioeconomic status, historical era. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and the right name just bubbles up out of my subconscious. Sometimes I flip through a reference like the telephone directory or the thick baby-naming book I keep on a shelf in my studio. But usually I draw on people I’ve met throughout my life. Maybe it’s a first name, or last name, or sometimes both. After all, that handy disclaimer at the front of the novel absolves me from litigation if someone doesn’t like the way I portrayed his or her crooked teeth or penchant for pornography or stiff drink.

But character names used on television and in the movies get far more scrutiny. Lift a well-known person’s name or portray a famous likeness too closely and you might find yourself in court. Or at least slapped with a nasty cease-and-desist order.

I often wonder if on-screen characters’ names also come from people in the writer’s lives, and in at least one case, I’m right. A reliable source (a livery driver who once drove the “real person” to the airport) gave me the story behind one of the minor characters on the television show, Seinfeld.

If you’re a fan of the show, you may remember Lloyd Braun, who popped up in three episodes played by two different actors (Peter Keleghan and Matt McCoy). He played George’s childhood friend and nemesis. Even though the character had a short grip on reality after a nervous breakdown sparked by losing the mayoral election for David Dinkins, George’s mother (in the classic episode “The Serenity Now”) often scolded her son by saying, “Why can’t you be more like Lloyd Braun?”

Lloyd Braun is indeed a real person; a television executive and producer who did some projects with NBC during Seinfeld’s reign. He’s probably best known for greenlighting Lost for ABC, and became the voice that began each episode with “Previously, on Lost….”

Prior to this, he was an entertainment lawyer, representing, among other clients, Seinfeld co-producer Larry David. The two were also golfing buddies. According to my source, a friendly wager between Lloyd Braun and Larry David on the links led to Braun’s allowing David to use his name on the show in any way he desired, however egregious.

Braun lost. (Wonder what kind of bet Art Vandelay lost?)

Another instance of a real person – though not actually a person – making it into fiction was a little more personal.

If you’re a Psych fan, look for a minor character named Penny Pascaretti, who appeared only once in the first couple of seasons. One of Psych’s writers, Andy Berman, a former child actor who had a recurring role on The Wonder Years, once dated someone in my family. On a walk down my street during a holiday visit, Berman met a neighbor’s dog, a yappy but lovable little thing. Penny belonged to the Pascaretti family. Berman liked the sound of the name and made good on his promise to use it in an upcoming episode.

Other than those two, in the words of George Costanza, “I got nothin’.”

What’s your favorite character name, in print or on screen? Do you know of any drawn from real life? If you are a writer, how do you choose your characters’ names?

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About laurieboris

Writer, editor, proofreader, stand-up comedian in another life.
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10 Responses to What’s In A Name?

  1. Most of my character’s names just came to me and I selected the simpler ones. Ironically, quite a few are Biblical names, too.

    • laurieboris says:

      They are the classics, L. Diane. (And thank you for visiting!) My name choices are all over the place. A lot from popular culture, many just because that’s what the character “told” me his or her name was.

  2. Wonderful post, Laurie! I only know of one name that went fictional in “Snow Falling On Cedar.” David Gutterson, the author, went to Roosevelt High School with me and around 1800 other kids. One of our classmates was Alice Etherington. One of the characters he portrays in the book is called Etherington. Could be a coincidence, but…

  3. laurieboris says:

    Once I changed a character’s name about three-quarters of the way into the second draft. The name I’d first chosen was meant to be a placeholder since no other was really coming to me. She was kind of flat on the page…until she decided her name was Helene. That’s when the sparks flew. Annie, “Snow Falling On Cedar” is one of my favorite books. Wonder if he knew the Etheringtons or pulled it out of the yearbook?

  4. JenD says:

    Great post, Laurie. This is such an interesting topic to me. I didn’t know that about Lloyd Braun! I like to work the name Art Vandelay into casual conversations just because it’s funny and I’m a huge Seinfeld fan.
    In the beginnings of my stories, I often can’t name my characters because they aren’t yet fully visible to me. I might call them “Girlfriend 1″, “Awful Mother” or, my favorite, “Real Bad Dude” until they show me exactly who they really are. Must be hard to name a baby without knowing who they are yet. I knew a Spanish girl in high school whose mother named her “Yo”, meaning “I” in Spanish. The girl was to be called Yo until she turned 18 and could then select her own name. I wonder what she decided on…
    Incidentally, I once had a job that required me to rename myself (long story). This is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. I’ve never loved my “most popular in 1971″ name, but at that job, I realized it is mine and no other would do.

    • laurieboris says:

      Thanks, Jen! (from “most popular in 1961…sort of”)

      Art Vandelay, apparently, has sparked a following. It’s been coopted by bands, artists, even as an identity on a Seinfeld FB fan page.

      Yeah, wondering who Yo is now. Maybe she’d been Yo so long, it stuck…Though I’d hate to be called YoYo (and you know that would be where elementary school students would take it.)

  5. MOM says:

    I can’t tell you the source of any name..sorry! I can tell you the character of Mary Alice was not based on me! LOL I took alot of ribbing when Desperate Housewives used my name! Hey…maybe they want to pay me for that! LOL

    Loved the post Laurie! Outta the ballpark once again girl!

  6. C J says:

    Nicely done Ms Laurie B indeed a home run [swing batter batter!!!!]

    Psych is filmed here in BC by the way….been up for but have not as of yet landed any of the roles I auditioned for on said show….ahh well….I keep on trying…

    My favorite movie character name is Celie, love that name, love it, love it, but I dunno if it was based on a real person or not.

    I dont think I really have any say in the naming of my characters the name sort of pops out of the ether as I am writing, same with what they look like they pop into my head and say, here I am now sit still n just type while I run through your head… I kinda like that. The book based on my family is a bit weirder in it’s development having seen pictures and listened to stories over the years as well as seeing the uh dead ones every now n then who like to chatter but thats a story for another day…….

  7. Genevieve says:

    I always worry about naming characters. Sometimes the name pops into my mind naturally; Other times I do put some thought into it. I try to not use names of friends or family. Last names are always the hardest for me to find, so I look in a phone book.
    As for real, celebrity names, I’ve mentioned it before, that I’m not sure of. I guess the smart thing to do would be to have two drafts, one with the real name and the second with a fiction name, just in case. The truth is though, once the story does make it to publication or to television, shouldn’t the higher ups already have permission and are ready to take on consequence should the real person should want to take legal action? We as writers come up with the story sure…but doesn’t the publisher/producer have some sort of smarts to be sure that real names and celebrity’s included in the story are used legally?

  8. laurieboris says:

    Absolutely, Genevieve–the legal department and the editors should be taking care of this stuff. But celebrities are very cagey these days about the use of their likeness, as it’s often licensed. If I want to allude to a celebrity, I may develop an amalgam or change some of the facts enough so that nobody can really recognize the person. My publisher didn’t seem to have any problem with my using a couple of celebrity names, as it didn’t denigrate them. With yours, you may want to choose a name that’s similar or another that sounds like something that would be the name of someone in your character’s profession. I hear situations from real-life used frequently on television, but never any of the names. I guess you just never know who’s going to sue you. Some companies are more litigious than others. Disney is one of the worst. They actually sued the Girl Scouts for using an image of Tinkerbell on a fund-raising calendar. I mean, come on! Really. The Girl Scouts.

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