Reader Question: How to handle a character who changes names?

When in doubt, check out actual movie scripts to see how the pros handle it — and we do with the screenplay for Tootsie.

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When Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels.

Question from elephantburch:

Hi scott, I have a question that I desperately need answered. What do you do with the action and dialog heading if a character changes names during the screenplay?

One example I can think of is 17 Again, in it, the protagonist starts out as MIKE, but when he goes back to school as a teen he starts going by MIKE? What would you do here?

I thought for sure I’d answered this recently, but after a search, it appears not. Here is one simple, clean approach from the movie Tootsie, the first appearance of “Dorothy Michaels”:

INT. NATIONAL TV STUDIO — OUTER WAITING ROOM — DAY

Michael, in drag, stands at the reception desk, as
Jacqui consults her clipboard. FOUR OTHER tough looking
women wait.

JACKQUI
George Grey’s your agent?

MICHAEL
Mmmm.

JACQUI
How do you spell your last name,
Dorothy?

MICHAEL
M-I-C-H-A-E-L-S.

JACQUI
Okay, come on.

INT. STUDIO B — DAY

RON, the director, is making notes on his script.

In bg TECHNICIANS are moving sets around. Rita looks
at various costumes that Alfred is showing her. She
smokes incessantly.

JACQUI
Ron, this is Dorothy Michaels.
Our director, Ron Carlysle,
that’s our producer, Rita Marshall.
Dorothy doesn’t have a resume.
She’s only been in town two weeks.
George Grey’s her agent.

RON
That’s very impressive, Dorothy.
George Grey takes very few
unknowns.

DOROTHY
(southern accent)
He was very kind to me.

RON
But I’m afraid you’re not right
for this part, Dorothy. I’m
sorry.

DOROTHY
Oh … why?

So until Michael is identified as Dorothy, his character name is Michael. Once he is identified as his female alter-ego, it becomes Dorothy.

And the script is consistent throughout: Whenever Michael is dressed up and acting as Dorothy, the character’s name is “Dorothy.” Whenever Michael is himself, the character’s name is “Michael.”

That’s seems to be a plenty good approach to me.

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