Let’s talk about the art of naming characters, especially NPCs. This is one of the (thankfully few) aspects of the GMing craft that doesn’t come naturally to me. I can usually get there in the end, but off-the-cuff names can be a real struggle.
To deal with this handicap, I have evolved a system and a process for coming up with character names that does most of the work for me, and that works even more effectively with a little targeted prep time. This series of articles is going to contain that system and process, because what works for me might work for you, too.
As with many of my articles, this started out as a one-post extravaganza, and quickly grew once I started writing. It’s now expected to be a five-part series.
- Part One will discuss the philosophy of character names and the differences between a good name and a bad one.
- Part Two outlines a number of ways of deriving the “seed” of a character name. Like an adventure seed, this is a starting point for a character name, but its output isn’t immediately ready to use in a game. There are 12 such sources for seeds.
- Part Three deals with name formats, their significance, and how they cam be used to refine or extend the hidden subtext within a name. There are at least 7 choices here.
- Part Four will show how to apply the process outlined in part 2 to the naming structure chosen in part 3, using one of the 84+ combinations to generate name seeds for a specific character, and how to turn that name seed into an actual character name.
- And finally, Part Five will review a number of the tools that I use to enhance the process of transforming a name seed into a character name.
At this point, it’s undecided whether or not posts on other subjects will be interspersed between these 5 sub-articles.
having laid out the agenda, let’s get to work!
The Virtue of a Good Name
A great choice of name immediately brings the character to whom it is attached to live in the minds of the audience, or in this case, the players. It can conjure an image of the character, imply speech patterns and mannerisms, suggest a personality profile, hint at a social structure and the character’s place within it. It can convey information on attitude, education, occupation, and intellect.
It can compress a pre-existing character concept into a single, easily-digested concentrate and download that concentrate directly into the minds of the audience. It can prompt choices of action by the players or create doubt and hesitation.
Coupled with other aspects of the character – speech, description, relationships, actions – it can be the glue that holds a character together.
A good name embellishes a character.
Finally, a good name can serve as a touchstone, a shortcut for the GM to get himself into the mind of the character.
If it has the right sounds, it can even get you into the right accent – I’ll never forget Peter Jurasik describing his technique for getting into character as Londo Mollari in Babylon 5: he would simply recite “Good Morning, Mister Garabaldi” in the pseudo-Hungarian accent that he had chosen for Londo and it instantly “locked” him into character. This doesn’t happen often with just a name – but it’s one heck of a fringe benefit when it does occur.
The Pitfalls of a Bad Name
If a good name can do all those things, is it any surprise that a bad name can be just as significant? The wrong name can tear an otherwise great character concept apart, reducing it to mediocrity. It can undermine every other significant aspect of a good character, resulting in an NPC that is full of mixed signals, forgettable, or even just a collection of random characteristics.
Why is a name so powerful?
The reason the name means so much is that most players will hear a description – once. Players ‘experience’ each action that the NPC carries out – once. They have each dialogue with the NPC – once. In order for all these elements to glue together, there has to be some common connective tissue – and the one that will get used repeatedly, time after time – by both the players and the GM – is the character’s name.
Okay, So Names Are Important!
So how do you know a good name from a bad one?
The rest of this article lists a number of rules to follow that will help avoid bad names – but that’s not enough.
A good name will articulate one or more central themes of the character, and will add substance to the character beyond that theme. Identifying the central theme and choosing the means of articulating it is what the second part of this series is all about, so I won’t get into it here.
The name has to encapsulate the most important, most significant, most central concept at the heart of the character.
Avoid The Famous
Choosing the name of a famous character or real person is the first refuge of those with no imagination, or who make no effort, and this impression swamps whatever content you wanted the name to carry. The results are usually a name that is passable but never right. Consider, for example, “Bankroft Holmes”; it takes only a few seconds to connect that with Mycroft Holmes, the somewhat-indolent-but-a-deductive-genius brother of Sherlock Holmes. The lack of originality makes this name marginal; but how much worse would it be to actually call your character “Mycroft”?
Actually, there are even better reasons not to do so. If you ever hope to publish anything related to your game – and a lot of people do – you don’t want any copyright problems to bother you. Even holding them at arm’s length can be a risk.
I wasn’t always aware of this problem, I must be honest. But because of it, I would have difficulty publishing the novelizations of my Superhero campaign that I wrote in the 90s, simply because there are already several groups in comics named “The Champions”, because Hero Games have put out several game products that refer to “UNTIL”, and so on. In fact, the campaign has a great many cultural references that would require editing – sometimes just the names, sometimes a complete re-conceptualization. And the nagging worry that I may have missed one, or not sufficiently distinguished the re-imaginings from the source of inspiration, would take all the fun out of such a project.
Avoid The Loaded
Some names are associated with traumatic or notorious events in modern history. These should be avoided when naming new characters. The associations can overwhelm the character you are trying to portray, reducing them to a caricature. Obvious examples include “Hitler”, “Bin Laden”, and “Darth” anything.
Avoid the Cliché
In fact, that last point can be enlarged to this one, which pretty much speaks for itself.
Avoid names that end in S or Z
A practical hint. Such names give real trouble with possessives. They not only look strange in print, they are difficult to pronounce clearly, and can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings. Consider, for example, a character named Pass. At first glance, a perfectly acceptable name. But when we try to use the possessive form, we get “pass’s” or “pass'”. Try saying them out loud, and you’ll soon get the point. Even a character named “Past” can get a little tongue-twisting. It’s easier and better to avoid trouble in the first place.
Ensure it’s pronounceable
Practice saying the name out loud half a dozen times in reasonably quick succession. If you have trouble pronouncing it more than once, consider a simpler name.
Ensure it looks right
When you use the name in a simple text sentence, does it look right on the page? “Halla Malloram” might be the perfect name for the character you are trying to create (though I doubt it), but the alliteration looks strange and will almost certainly produce malapropisms and spoonerisms.
Ensure it sounds right
Another problem to watch for is where the ending of one part of the name, combined with the beginning of the next part of the name, combines to give or to suggest an inappropriate word. “Chopper Linquist” might be an acceptable name, or even a great name, but there’s a “pearl” in the middle of it. Okay, so this example is reaching a bit, but that’s preferable to any of the several examples that came to mind more readily involving obscenities.
Choosing names that are contemporary with your game setting is a big advantage. Not only does it assist with verisimilitude, and confine your choices to reasonable ones, it automatically builds in an additional layer of meaning. To make this work most effectively, determine the character’s age at the time his name was assigned; this will be the year of the character’s birth most of the time, but in the case of orphans and amnesiacs may be years later. It is this name that determines which names are “contemporary” for that particular character. This approach also permits characters that change their names to choose appropriately.
Walking a fine line: Alien Names
Special care must be taken when crafting names for non-humans. While there is no need to create a whole new language, it’s best to set down some name-generation rules and construct names using it. I’ve written in the past about the language house rules for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, in Ask The GMs: Rubbing Two Dry Words Together.
The same techniques can be applied to character naming for original and alien cultures. Consider the examples of the Borg in Star Trek (both Next Gen and Voyager) and of the Kzin and other aliens in Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
It must also be remembered that the more alien the species and their language, the more they will need to adopt “human” conventions simply to converse with us. It’s easy to invent a species that communicates by releasing different odors, but humans will name individuals for reference, and conversational needs will soon lead to the aliens adopting those names for their own usage – unless they are sufficiently strong-willed to choose their own to start with. At best, the name might have some association with the dominant “scent” of the individual’s name in “perfume-tongue” – Apple, Pippin, or Grannysmith for someone who uses an apple scent, for example.
Don’t be predictable
GMs are like everyone else; they fall into patterns and acquire habits, both good and bad. These can lead the GM to adopt a particular naming style that becomes predictable. When that happens, the players will get used to that naming style and pay less attention to the names the GM gives to his characters – with the result that subtexts built into the names and characters by the GM are often overlooked.
Sound like you, not someone else
Don’t steal your names from Tolkien unless your game is set in the world of the Lord Of The Rings. Don’t steal your names from Star Wars unless you’re playing Star Wars.
In the bad old days, everything was fair game. I can remember a D&D game from many years ago – in fact, the second RPG game I had ever played – in which the PCs were named “Dilbo”, “Grak”, “Darth Violet”, “Alabaster The White”, and “Hank Solo”. They were, respectively, a Halfling, a Half-Orc, a Wizard, a Cleric, and a Fighter/Rogue. (You can groan now.) My character in that game? “Wülfex Stariskos”, usually abbreviated to Wülfstarr, a character cursed to have the appearance of a Lycanthrope for some offence committed by his long-dead parents, and whose central focus was on learning how to remove or lift the curse. Thankfully, gamers are usually less juvenile these days – at least the ones I play with.
Beware the Cute
“Dilbo” and “Darth Violet” (fresh wince) also points up another naming pitfall. No matter how cute the character or its race is supposed to be, avoid naming the character in any sort of cutesy fashion. Not only does it make it look like you don’t take the character seriously, it encourages players and outside GMs not to take YOU seriously. One of my players has only half-learned this lesson; his character names run from the excellent to the abysmal. He thinks he is being funny when he attaches a name like “Spuriouset” to one of his PCs, and can never seem to realize that he’s the only one laughing.
Yes, there will be occasions and characters whose names are deliberately cute, for effect. Save these names for those occasions, no matter how tempted you might be.
Beware the Diminutive
Related to the previous point is this: Diminutive versions of names, often chosen to convey youth or innocence, can often trespass into the realm of the “cute”. Whenever you create a character, spare a thought for how that name will render in the diminutive; and whenever you create a character whose name is intentionally of the diminutive form, make doubly sure that every aspect of that name conveys the subtext and message you intend and no other.
Consider an NPC I created for the previous incarnation of my Superhero campaign, James Fingreiz (pronounced Fing-Greez) – or, as the PCs came to know him, Jimmy Fingers. “Jimmy-The-Fingers” was a teenaged street punk who was there to develop a crush on one of the PCs. He tried to impress by being macho, but that didn’t work. Time after time, he got himself into trouble or complicated the PCs lives by getting in the way. Several Angst-ridden conversations between Jimmy and the target of his affections followed – and, of course, he took all the wrong messages and signals out of these. He took ever more daring risks to prove himself worthy, infiltrating villain organizations (gathering intelligence in the process that the team needed to have) – and then getting caught. Finally, the PC in question (the Player was getting desperate) told him flat that no romance between them was possible because he didn’t have powers and would always be in danger when they were together. Predictably, this backfired, sending Jimmy off on a quest to become worthy of the woman he loved. The final sequences in this plotline form part of the new campaign. (Much to the PC’s chagrin, Jimmy has encountered a couple of romantics along the way who have done their best to help him achieve this goal instead of sending him home where he belongs).
This was a case of very carefully choosing a diminutive version to emphasize the youth (and the age disparity) between the NPC and the PC. The players have never even heard the character’s full name; to them, he first introduced himself as “Jimmy-The-Fingers” and became “Jimmy Fingers” thereafter. Every aspect of the character was designed to contrast with that of the PC who the NPC was targeting; innocence and naivety vs. maturity and experience; petty hoodlum vs. heroine; swarthy vs. Anglo-Saxon (Danish, to be more specific). And the name was then chosen to embody, represent, and reinforce those aspects of the NPCs makeup. He was designed NOT to be taken seriously as a figure of romance by the PC, and the name achieved this perfectly.
First Syllables matter
Complicated names are usually abbreviated for convenience, and more than any other source, those abbreviations derive from the first syllable of a name. “Sebastian” becomes “Seb”, “Barbara” becomes “Barb”, “Donald” becomes “Don”. It should come as no surprise when “Quiximacolte” becomes “Quix”.
It’s also important to be sure that the diminutive or abbreviated forms of the name don’t lead to unfortunate and inadvertent explicitisms. “Falodin Uss” might seem a perfectly reasonable name, but reducing the christian name to a single syllable produces a meaning that is not at all desirable.
Consider the Nickname
Does the name suggest a nickname that is undesirable? Surnames that are also nouns, or sound like nouns, are especially prone to this problem. Consider the obvious problems that would afflict a character named “Richard Weed”, for example.
Real parents have this problem all the time – or fail to consider it, and mar their children’s lives throughout their formative years.
But it’s too strong to advise GMs not to choose names for this reason alone; it is a factor that they should take into account, but there may well be times when an unfortunate nickname can explain the source of character personalities far better than a small mountain of prose. Consider a character named “Geoffrey Rubb” – he will almost certainly be nicknamed “Grubby”. Whether this turns the character into someone who is indifferent to hygiene and cleanliness or someone who is pathological about neatness is up to the GM – but that nickname will have a major effect on young Geoffrey.
As with several other criteria, this sort of thing is fine when done deliberately, but can be troublesome and detracting when it occurs accidentally.
Flavor is more important than meaning
I think every player and GM goes through a phase when they want the character names to mean something, usually when they first come into contact with the use of a book of baby names as a character generation resource.
The problem is that most of these meanings are ancient in derivation, and have little relevance in the modern mind. “Richard”, and it’s derivations, “Ritchie” and “Dicky”, means “Strong Power” or “Hardy Power”. But those are not the connotations that come to mind when I hear those derivations; I associate “Ritchie” with “Ritchie Rich” and “Dicky” with “Richard Nixon” – and both of those are very different to “Strong Power”. A lonely child trying to buy affection from others, and a manipulative Machiavelli, respectively, would be closer to the mark.
So forget the fancy meanings; the flavor that a name imparts in your mind when you hear it is far more important.
One of the staples of the pulp genre, that has made its way into the superhero stable via Superman’s pulp origins, is the alliterative name. “Lois Lane”, “Lana Lang”, “Clark Kent” (pronunciation is more important than spelling), “Felix Faust”, “Brick Bradford”, “Peter Parker”, “Reed Richards”, the list goes on and on.
The problem is that these all smack of “cute” – and “cute” can get in the way of the actual message you’re trying to encapsulate in the name, as mentioned earlier.
Even used sparingly, these can stand out as exceptions to every other character name you’ve offered, weakening the verisimilitude of the campaign. So resist the temptation – unless it’s genre-appropriate, and even then, think twice.
Beware the Follow-on
When a character’s name consists of more than one word, avoid christian names that end with the same sound that is at the start of the surname. This is a recipe for pronunciation difficulty on almost every occasion. “Foccult Tuttle” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.
There are occasions when you can get away with this – but it’s additional work, and usually unnecessary work.
Know the Genre Rules Of Naming
We’ve already touched on this rule lightly, but it deserves to be rendered a little more explicitly. Know the “rules” (rarely actually written down anywhere, that would be too easy) for the genre of your game and use the naming conventions to anchor your game that little more solidly into that genre. Pulp names usually have short first names and action-oriented, dramatic or powerful surnames. Superhero names tend toward the obvious. Western Surnames tend toward the practical and occupational.
It is also useful to have some notion of the way subcultures influence names. Many common names in the US derive from Jewish sources; nothing wrong with that, but picking a name at random can lead to mistakes like applying such a name to a non-Jewish character. Names with such derivations would be fairly rare and noteworthy in any era prior to WWI – in the Old West, or in the era of the American Revolution. That’s not to say there might not have been some exceptions to the general rule – but, as with many other rules in this list, do it deliberately, when it’s appropriate, not inadvertently or through laziness.
Intelligence permits clever names
Some names – stage names, supervillain and hero names – can be chosen for effect, or for concealment of a character’s nature. The more intelligent the character choosing the name is, the more likely this should be. At the same time, there is something to be said for deliberately adopting a stereotypical name, in that it can lead your opposition to underestimate you.
Never Be Temporary
There are two types of temporary names: the unsatisfying attempt, and the unimaginative placeholder.
The unsatisfying attempt is a name that doesn’t quite achieve your objectives, but that you use until you can think of a better choice. The problem is that a temporary name constrains the imagination to a range of similar solutions, making it that much harder to find the perspective that will ultimately give you the right idea. Worse still, you can forget that you need to find a better name until it’s too late.
The unimaginative placeholder is even worse, and more pernicious. One of my players has the habit of using “Bob” in this way, every time the PCs meets a character that I have to invent off the cuff, if there is even the slightest hesitation in my giving them a name. Every time he does so, it completely derails the mental process which was busy choosing a name at the time. One of these days, I’ll name a Machiavellian arch-enemy “Bob” out of sheer spite. Once again, the problem is that the placeholder restricts your thinking and, at the same time, pressures you to accept the first half-way decent choice that comes to mind. Both are unacceptable.
A Good Name is Hard To Find
To be honest, I operate as much by instinct and “feeling” when it comes to naming characters as I do by working through a detailed checklist like the one I’ve presented in this article. Many of these principles are in the back of my mind, but few are at the forefront of my thinking.
What I’ll be concentrating on is the character, their personality, and the role they are to play in the adventure at hand. I’ll pick the item that it’s most important to communicate to the players, or to reinforce, and then try to think of names that encapsulate that meaning. I’ll keep trying and discarding possible names until I find one that works – then decide whether or not I’m satisfied with it.
Consider, for example, the name of an NPC from the current Pulp Adventure: Pastor Esteban Dominguez. The title came first, when the background of the character suggested a somewhat-gifted amateur archeologist. We wanted the character to be intelligent, and we knew that he was going to be using religious institutions for his own purposes; both suggested that he be a member of the religious infrastructure. Archbishop and Bishop gave the character too much authority; so we were left with “Priest” or one of the titles that were synonymous with that designation. While the character was to have served in a prestigious capacity as a support worker, we wanted him to be a country boy at heart. The mediocrity and pretentiousness of “Pastor” (as compared to the more commonplace “Father”) seemed to sum up the personality and authority we wanted the character to have.
Secondly, we knew that we wanted the character to be Hispanic in ethnicity – originally from the US, but now living in Mexico. That meant a Spanish-based surname; and the choice was further narrowed by our desire for his name to be fairly commonplace. There were any number of surnames we could have chosen, but Dominguez was the first to come to mind, and it fitted the criteria perfectly.
That left a christian name, and this was the most difficult choice of them all. We could have used “Enrico”, or a dozen alternatives; or we could have given him an Anglo christian name. We went through nearly a dozen choices before coming up with “Esteban” – a name with a slightly formal connotation, a distinctive, and with a hint of both education (it’s polysyllabic), and a hint of both menace and respectability in our minds. Finally, we repeated the name to ourselves a few times to ensure that the combination “felt right” and then aloud a few more times to ensure that it sounded right when someone else announced it.
A good name may be hard to find, but the results make the effort more than simply worthwhile.
- A Good Name Is Hard To Find
- The Wellspring Of Euonyms: Name Seeds
- Sugar, Spice, and a touch of Rhubarb: That’s what little names are made of
- With The Right Seasoning: Beyond Simple Names
- Grokking The Message: Naming Places & Campaigns
- Hints, Metaphors, and Mindgames: Naming Adventures (Part 1)
- Hints, Metaphors, and Mindgames: Naming Adventures (Part 2)
- Memorials To History – an ‘a good name’ extra