Friday, June 18, 2010

The Kevin Williamson School of Character Naming

Though I tried to avoid news about the new Scream sequel, I ended up reading an item about Lauren Graham being cast in it. I like Lauren Graham. I think she’s a talented actress — more of a comedic one, sure, but a good one nonetheless who may well get to use her full range in this new Scream movie. Her joining Scream 4 was enough to make me investigate this rather unexpected sequel in order to see what it was really about. The film has Emma Roberts playing what I assume to be the central role: Jill Kessler, the cousin of Neve Campbell’s character. Graham plays the character’s mother, Kate Kessler. Sidney Prescott (Cambell), Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) are all returning, even though the movie will focus largely on a new batch of potential corpses. The film takes place ten years after the events of Scream 3.

So there’s that. Personally, I feel the series should have died with the third movie and poor Jennifer Jolie — the kind of amazing character Parker Posey played, whose name seems to associate Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie long before they ever had a reason to be associated. However, I will nonetheless see Scream 4 in the theater and be entertained, so perhaps this extension beyond the original planned trilogy will prove to be a worthwhile venture after all.

The fact that Roberts and Graham’s characters have the last name Kessler reminded me of a certain habit that series creator Kevin Williamson has when naming his characters. Williamson — the writer of Scream and most recently The Vampire Diaries — tends to favor certain types of names. Consider, if you will, the following:

In Scream, there’s Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard). In Scream 2, there’s Cici Cooper (Sarah Michelle Gellar). In Dawson’s Creek, there’s Joey Potter (Katie Homes) and Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson). In The Faculty, there’s Nurse Harper (Salma Hayek). In Teaching Miss Tingle, there’s Luke Churner (Barry Watson) and Principal Potter (Michael McKean). In the short-lived ABC series Wastleland, there’s Jesse Presser (Sasha Alexander) and Dawnie Parker (Marisa Coughlan). In the WB series Glory Days, there’s Zane Walker (Ben Crowley). In the CW series Hidden Palms, there’s Johnny Miller (Taylor Handley) and Liza Witter (Ellary Porterfield).

Weird, huh? I’d almost argue that he’s using “agent” names as a shorthand way of defining his characters, but I don’t think that’s the case. Having the last name Becker seems to have little bearing on Drew Barrymore’s character in Scream, unless the etymology of Becker goes back to something meaning “person who dies unexpectedly soon.” And it’s also not that Williamson is choosing common last names. Cooper and Parker might show up a lot in any given American phonebook, sure, but how often do you meet people with the last name Churner? Presser? Witter?

Though the “agent” names show up the most frequently in Williamson’s work, they’re not the only ones that show up more than once.

He also likes surnames that end in s:
In Scream, there’s Randy Meeks. In Scream 2, there’s Maureen Evans (Jada Pinkett) and Phil Stevens (Omar Epps). In Teaching Miss Tingle, there’s Miss Banks (Molly Ringwald). In Glory Days, there’s Ellie Sparks (Poppy Montgomery). In Hidden Palms, there’s Gretta Matthews (Amber Heard) and Nikki Barnes (Tessa Thompson).
He also likes surnames that end in y:
In Scream, there’s Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan), Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) and Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler). In Dawson’s Creek, there’s Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) and Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams). In Hidden Palms, there’s Bob and Karen Hardy (D.W. Moffett and Gail O’Grady).
And he also likes to give masculine names to female characters:
In Scream, there’s Sidney Prescott. In Scream 2, there’s Murphy (Portia de Rossi). In Dawson’s Creek, there’s Andie McPhee (Meredith Monroe). In The Faculty, there’s Stokely “Stokes” Mitchell (Clea DuVall). In Wasteland, there’s Sam Price (Rebecca Gayheart).
(Note: These lists exclude Scream 3, which Williamson had a hand in creating but the script for which was written by Ehren Krueger. It also leaves out I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Vampire Diaries, since they’re both based on books I have not read and I’m therefore not sure whether the characters in these were named by Williamson. And, finally, it skips the majority of Dawson’s Creek, since Williamson left the show in its second season.)

And then there are a whole lot of names that show up twice in Williamson’s work — newscasters named Gail appear in both the Screams and Dawson’s Creek, Casey is also the name of Elijah Woods’s character in The Faculty, there’s a Dawnie in both Scream 2 and Wasteland, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character mentions a Dawson’s Beach in I Know What You Did Last Summer, just to name a few. And even though Williamson is apparently not credited with any work on Halloween: 20 Years Later, at least according to IMDb, I’m pretty sure he at least wrote a treatment for the film, which could account for why it features Jamie Lee Curtis’s character starting a new life as a high school English teacher named Ms. Tate, which happens to be the name of Sidney’s English teacher in Scream.

So what have we learned?

For one, I have a weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of the work of Kevin Williamson — not because I love all of it, but mostly because I loved Scream enough that I’ve interestedly tracked this writer’s career for the last decade-and-a-half. I also, for some reason, still remember the name of Sidney Prescott’s English teacher, even though she only appears in Scream for about ten seconds and even though her name may only be mentioned in the script and not the film itself. That all aside, what I was hoping to point out is that Williamson clearly has developed a few naming conventions within his work. I honestly wonder if it’s intentional or if it’s the result of something subconscious. For what it’s worth, the IMDb page for Scream 4 also lists Hayden Panettiere as playing Kirby Reed (girl with guy’s name), Rory Culkin as playing Charlie Walker (surname ends in er) and Lake Bell as playing Judy Hicks (surname ends in s). So if Williamson is aware of these habits, he certainly has no intention of changing them.

NOTE: Anyone who saw Scream 4 knows that Jill and Kate Kessler became Jill and Kate Roberts. I do not know if this happened before or after Ehren Kruger revised parts of the script, but Roberts is still a name that ends in s. Also, Kate ended up being played by Mary McDonnell, but that’s neither here nor there.

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:38 PM

    In Lois Duncan book of Last Summer, Helen's last name is Rivers, not Shivers as it is in the movie, so we know Kevin changed that one name. Shivers ends in an ER and an S so it fits in two of the categories.

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  2. Anonymous5:39 PM

    And the acting mentor in Scream 2 is named Gold and so is the guidance counsellor in Miss Tingle.

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    1. This is a good point, though it doesn't fit into my categories.

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  3. That new Angelina Jolie movie has got me thinking... Where the hell did Kevin Williamson get the name Debbie Salt for Scream 2? What kind of a name is "Salt"?

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    1. I think about that every time I watch American Horror Story and see Jennifer Salt listed as the executive producer.

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