I was 13 years old when the first Harry Potter movie came out. At the time, I happened to have a young neighbor named Harry — and that year, Harry’s life dramatically changed.
The transformation began innocently, on Halloween night of ’01, with a rudimentary costume and a lightning bolt scar. By November, he had rallied the neighborhood kids to play Quidditch with old broomsticks. Before year’s end, he was traipsing around the street in a homemade invisible cloak, flanked by Cameron — a 5-year-old redhead he’d recruited and christened “Ron.”
Through a shared first name, Harry became Harry.
Like Harry, many of us have shared a name with a movie character. But throughout the history of cinema, certain names have been used a lot more than others.
My colleague Soo Oh and I were curious to see how frequently various names are used, so we analyzed film credits from 26,000 films and compiled a list of nearly 20,000 unique character names.
In the interactive below, you can input your name and see how many films have a character who shares your name, along with where your name ranks in overall film usage.
We built this interactive using a database from Bruce Nash over at the Numbers. It contains more than 160,000 credits from theatrical or major video releases in the US, and spans a century of cinema, from 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to 2020’s Hannibal the Conquerer. The character lists come directly from credits provided by the movie studios.
The database contains thousands of character names, ranging from common names like "Jack" to unnamed roles like "Doctor." Determining whether a credited character is a surname, given name, or role is more of an art than a science. For example, "Knight" could be a first name, a last name, or an unnamed role. In these cases, we left the name out.
We also limited our list to names that made at least two appearances in a film — if your name isn't on the list, you can assume it's not very common in movies.
You can read more about our methodology at the bottom of this article. But for now, let’s get to the findings.
The most popular names in film are overwhelmingly male
The vast majority of the 50 most common gender-combined names assigned to movie characters are masculine — names typically given to men.
“Jack” and “John” (the former of which is a diminutive form of the latter) dominated this list, with more than 300 appearances each. Nine of the top 10 names — and 69 percent of the names in the top 50 — are masculine.
Broken down by gender, the data tells the same story. Here are the top 25 names typically assigned to men and women:
This can partly be attributed to the fact that there are simply more male roles in films than there are female roles.
A University of Southern California study of 800 popular films from 2007 to 2015 found that women represent only 31.4 percent of speaking roles in film. Male actors outnumber female actors two to one in credited roles. The same study concluded that 32 percent of movies had a female lead or co-lead, and that a mere 12 percent of films had a gender-balanced cast.
People are less creative naming men than women
But there is another reason male-skewed names are dominate this list: Many screenwriters and novelists name their characters after people they know in real life — and in real life, men tend to be given the same names more frequently than women are.
We compared our list of most popular character names with a Social Security Administration list of the most popular names over a similar time period (1916 to 2015).
The most popular male names are used far more than the most popular female names. All 25 of the male names here have more than 1 million uses, compared with nine of the female names. It seems that American society, for whatever reason, is more creative when naming women.
As you can see from the highlighted text, many of the most popular character names are also, predictably, popular names in real life. But the names used in film more commonly seem to be informal variations: “Bill” instead of “William,” for instance. Formal names are something of a rarity in movie credits; shortened nicknames are far more common.
The names Hollywood disproportionately loves (and hates)
There are certain character names that are frequently used in film that are not as common in real life, and vice versa.
Cross-comparing the Social Security Administration’s list (above) with our data about most popular character names, we identified the names that are over- or underrepresented in film. Names that are underrepresented are those that fall within the SSA’s 100 most popular names but rank relatively low in film usage; overrepresented names are within the 100 top names in film but do not appear on the SSA’s list.
In particular, Hollywood loves the names “Lucy,” “Claire,” “Charlie,” and “Max.” Characters bearing these names collectively appear in more than 500 films — yet not one of the names cracks the top 100 most popular American names.
Conversely, Hollywood hates “Patricia.” Despite being the second most popular baby name of the past century in America, it ranks a measly 182nd in film usage. “Kenneth” fares even worse: Though it is the 20th most popular name in America, it doesn’t even crack film’s top 400.
The lack of diversity in Hollywood character names
As you might have noticed, non-European names are largely absent from the most popular film credits.
While part of this speaks to a grave lack of diversity in Hollywood cast lists, it is also an indicator that screenwriters often “play it safe,” selecting names the majority of viewers can identify with. Minority roles often get Anglicized names.
To understand this lack of diversity, we need look no further than screenwriters, the folks by and large responsible for naming characters in film. A 2016 Writers Guild of America study found that more than two-thirds of screenwriters are white men. Just 16 percent are women, and 7 percent are minorities.
As I learned from Harry, the Potter-crazed kid from my youth, there is a certain camaraderie in sharing a name with a movie character. But this is not a luxury everyone enjoys.
Additional notes on methodology:
Any movie characters in this database who were unnamed or credited as a description (e.g., "Bride #1," or "Nunchuck Fighter") were omitted. Many characters' names also included prefixes, like "Old Man Marley" or "Uncle Frank." In these cases, we identified the first name in the title and removed all other descriptors.
To determine which names seemed most like a given name instead of a surname, we used a tool called Genderize.io, which runs names through a database of 216,000 distinct names from 79 countries and 89 different languages as a benchmark. We looked up each name’s total count, then manually researched the names with low counts and made decisions on an individual basis.
Names with multiple derivatives (“Thomas” = “Tom” and “Tommy,” or “Anthony” = “Tony”) were not combined, with the reasoning that these derivatives can be names in their own right.