Wow. I just realised this is the 351st post here at Campaign Mastery! A quick thank-you to everyone who has contributed, participated, commented, or read our stuff along the way!
I also want to spare a moment to mention the people affected by the flooding here in Australia at the moment. We’re about 2 days into a major wet-weather event that in 48 hours has already flooded an area the size of France – with 2-4 days more heavy rain to come, if not more. To anyone who is affected, or any of our readers who knows someone who is, my thoughts are with you.
I now return you to the regularly-scheduled blog post…
Part One of this series established why good character names are important, some of the characteristics of good names, the mistakes that can create less-than-optimal choices, and some of the negative consequences that result from poorly-chosen names.
This part is going to examine a number of approaches that can be followed to symbolically represent an NPC in a “Name Seed” that can then form the foundations of a name.
Don’t recognize the term “Euonym” (pronounced “You-Oh-Nim” or perhaps “You-ah-nim” with a sloppy Australian accent)? It means an especially “apt or fitting” name.
The Name Seed
The perfect name synopsizes the overall general impression of a character that you want to convey to the players/GM/audience (yes, this approach works for PCs as well). Sadly, finding the perfect name is usually a lot of hard and sometimes dull work, and since I’m not very good at creating even marginally-tolerable names on the fly, I’ve developed a system for the quick generation of names that are at least good-to-excellent.
The core of that system is the “Name Seed”, a referent that symbolizes the one quality of the character that I most want to express or encapsulate in the name.
This ononatopoeiaic approach to is the simplest of the available techniques for generating a Name Seed because there can be so many different descriptive elements to choose from (ononatopoeia = “formation of names or words from sounds that resemble those associated with the object or action to be named, or that seem suggestive of its qualities”).
There are five subcategories:
- Equipment, and
Name Seeds from Physical Descriptions
I employ this approach when the most central fact of the character is simply that he exists, not what his role in the plot might be. Common NPCs whose sole purpose is to interact with the PCs fall into this category, such as shopkeepers, merchants, waiters, barmen, witnesses, and advisors of all kinds. These characters are not so much intended to provoke a reaction on the part of the players/audience as they are to interact with them.
The vital descriptive element that I wish to convey will often be physical in nature. Height, weight, an irregular bloodline, a family curse, attractiveness, ugliness, illness, age – these are all reasonable characteristics to mine for Name Seeds.
Here’s a list of example Name Seeds for each of these attributes to show you how it works:
- Tall, Short
- Thin, Fat, Athletic, Runner
- Bastard, Orphan, Adopted
- Wolven, Cloven, Horned, Blighted, Ape-like
- Handsome, Attractive, Lady-killer, Femme Fatale
- Scarred, Marked, Ravaged, Limp, Lame
- Sprightly, Old, Young, Vigorous
Each of these has, of course, a number of synonyms from which the name can be derived.
That, then, is the process of selecting a Name Seed. Decide on the type of quality that is the most appropriate source, select the general category of Name Seeds from amongst the many that fall within that group of categories, pick a word that fits this character from within that general category. Start broad and refine your way to a specific term step by step, then consider synonyms.
But before I take you through the next step in the process – the actual generation and selection of a name from a Name Seed – lets look at the other categories and when they are most appropriate.
Name Seeds from Emotional Descriptions
Believe it or not (and unlike in real life), emotional descriptions are simpler than physical descriptions when it comes to Name Seeds. That’s because there are only two categories of emotion that matter in terms of names:
- Emotions that dominate the character to be named; and
- Emotions that the character to be named typically arouses in others.
What’s more, the list of entries in both categories is identical, and runs the full gamut of human emotions. (If you’re smart enough to devise them, it would also encompass non-human emotions if appropriate, but most people simply dress up human ones for the purpose).
Also fitting into this grouping of Name Seeds are opinions. These belong in both categories; for example, “Suspicious” can be a description of how the character makes other people feel, or it can describe the NPC’s attitude. “Trustworthy” can describe how the NPC sees others (at least until they prove otherwise – which is the difference between this and “Gullible”) or how he appears to others – or even how he wants to appear to others (see “Aspirational Variants” below).
Some abstract qualities also make an appearance here, even though they are not emotions per se. “Honest” and “Honorable” are examples.
By now, it should be fairly obvious when this category of name seeds is my first resort – when an NPC is intended to play a prominent plot role that will require roleplaying beyond that of a simple merchant or other relatively anonymous character. In other words, when I want an NPC to have an emotional impact, one way or another.
Name Seeds from Psychological Descriptions
This type of Name Seed emphasizes one of two things:
- What a character thinks (or doesn’t think); or,
- What the character wants other people to think about them, about someone else, or regarding some subject or circumstance that matters to them.
Some readers may not immediately perceive the difference between this category (mental) and the previous one (emotional). The core differences are that Emotional Name Seeds are about feelings and instinctive beliefs, motives, and motivations. This category is more concerned with interpretation and ideology, with patterns and habits of thought and philosophies, with how a character’s (emotion-based) beliefs shape their actions and decisions.
That does not mean that these ideas can’t arouse feelings in the part of a player or the PC that encounters them; on the contrary, if it doesn’t provoke a reaction of some sort, it’s not a very interesting basis for a character. This is fine if the Name Seed is “anonymity” but a fail under just about any other circumstance I can think of.
Name Seeds from Equipment
There are times, especially when a character is adopting a pseudonym or nom-de-plum, when the most significant element of the character is a particular item of equipment with which he is to be identified or associated. This may be a weapon, a piece of equipment, or a mode of transport. In its direct form (refer “Variations On A Theme”, below), this is a relatively rare Name Seed, which can make it ideal for exotic and unusual characters.
Name Seeds from Occupations
The final type of Name Seed is employed when the most pertinent fact of a character is his occupation, or (especially in fantasy campaigns) his father’s occupation. This option is my first choice when I want to emphasize a character’s personal history. English surnames are full of this type of name – “Baker”, “Butcher”, “Smith”, “Wainwright”, “Wright”, “Marshall”, and “Cooper” to name but a few.
There’s an element of implied practicality and down-to-earth simplicity that comes with such character names that makes them ideal when what-the-character-does is more important than who-the-character-is.
Variations On A Theme
In addition to the direct interpretation, each of the sources of Name Seeds discussed above also comes in five other flavors, possibly more. Altogether, the domains of Name Seeds are:
- Direct (these are the interpretations specified in the descriptions of each source above);
- Subterfuge; and,
These six domains combine with the five origin-types to create 30 categories of Name Seed, most of which have at least two internal variations – around 70 different sources of Name Seeds. Picking a Name Seed permits you to “zoom in” on names that express the character by eliminating 98%+ of the possible names that don’t fit, as well as giving a spur to your powers of association, a starting point.
Let’s look at each of these domains (they should be fairly obvious, but why make risky assumptions?)
The Direct Approach
Quite often, you will want the name to do exactly what it says on the tin – serve as a central focus for the character by reinforcing and nuancing the description and behavior of that character. This is the simplest approach, and it’s hard to go wrong with it (not impossible, just more difficult). But it’s also the least creative and subtle of the possible approaches.
Even if the alternatives are embraced, this should still be your first choice most of the time. Save the variations for important characters.
Inversions & Perversions
Sometimes, you want a Name Seed to be the exact opposite of the actual character. Calling a small person “Tiny” is often construed as an insult; calling an 8′ Ogre “Tiny” is being ironic. “Tiny” (or “small”) therefore works as a Name Seed for a character who is big and strong. For that matter, so do “Feeble” and “Weak”; “Meek” works for an overly-aggressive character, as does “Gentle”; and so on. It can be surprising how effective this approach can be, when used sparingly.
One of the best examples in literature (and the first one to come to mind) is Stragen’s Court in David & Leigh Eddings’ series, “The Elenium.” The head of a local Thieves’ Guild styles himself a King and insists on being addressed as “Milord” as much for the insult it offers the real aristocracy and dark humor as for the sense of authority and entitlement that it conveys.
The third domain represents the Name Seed as something the character desires to achieve. The implication is that whatever the Name Seed represents is something the character is not, for some reason, and that they were even further removed from it in the past.
Further artistry can sometimes be possible if the character’s nature is such that their circumstances or history prohibit the character from ever achieving this aspiration. This sort of irony can elevate the character from a simple one to a rich and complex personality.
If a Name Seed can be a referent to the character’s future, it can also be a reflection of a character’s past, a description of some singular event that shaped the character’s life.
The Subterfuge Options
A fifth interpretation comes when a character deliberately adopts a name, or Name Seed, as misdirection or subterfuge. One of the original PCs in my superhero campaign was named Behemoth – a good, strong, and fairly typical superheroic name. It implies size and strength, and the character had both to spare, and a character who is clumsy and a little on the dim side – neither of which was true. In fact, the character name artfully concealed a supergenius-level IQ, something that would be immediately apparent to anyone on meeting the character; but, before he became too famous, it was a name that led many villains to underestimate him.
This is also an option that clever villains should exploit – the smarter they are, the more subtle they should be. For example, a villain whose powers have a cold-based side-effect – but who has no overt heat vulnerability – might call himself “Cryo” or “Coldsnap” or something else suggestive of the cold.
It works in fantasy games, as well. I once seeded a dungeon with lots of references to research into a new form of golem, listing its vulnerabilities and the wizard’s attempts to overcome the design flaws. As a result, the PCs were well-prepared when they finally encountered one. Except that the name was a bluff, and the supporting research was faked, and the encounter was with an exotically-shaped iron golem – who was only enhanced by all the spell effects that it was supposed to be vulnerable to!
The Metaphor Expansion
The final interpretation of the Name Seed options should come as no surprise to any regular readers of Campaign Mastery. I’ve been extolling the virtues of metaphors in gaming for years!
All the other options presented are either literally true in some fashion, or literally untrue. This choice broadens the potential range of Name Seeds enormously. I use this option when the more direct approach seems a little too obvious, or when I want to layer additional depths of meaning into the name.
For example, suppose I want to come up with a name for an ultra-British character, the embodiment of bravery and steadfast resistance no matter what the odds. In the previous incarnation of the Zenith-3 campaign, I had just such a character appear as an NPC. This superhero looked like he should be an accountant; he had a wiry build, was 5-foot-nothing, and appeared to be a 98-pound weakling. He was incredibly good at sounding heroic, giving a number of press conferences, being on a first-name basis with the reporters, taking time out in the middle of a crisis to sign autographs and pose for the cameras, with a smile as broad as the Thames. The British revered him as a hero; the team had a lot of trouble figuring out why. When the conflict got underway, they discovered the answer: his abilities were directly fuelled by the public belief that he could do anything, solve any problem, defeat any foe.
All of the above had been worked out in advance, but I needed a name for the character that summed up that quality of plucky indomitability. I wanted the PCs to have expectations from the name alone simply for the contrast with the character’s actual appearance and behavior.
None of the direct solutions quite worked. My first thought was the British Lion, symbolic of bravery and nobility – but the “nobility” element didn’t quite match the overtones that I wanted to project, which were all about the public perception of the character. It was only when I decided to employ a British metaphor for bravery that the solution came to mind, and it did so immediately I approached the problem from the new perspective. All told, it took me less than 30 seconds to come up with the name “Lionheart” – the perfect vehicle for what I wanted to convey.
So popular was the character with the PCs, and so much fun was had at the table that day, that we all regretted that Lionheart had not become part of the campaign soon enough to make a return appearance – but the campaign was ramping up to its big finish at the time.
Generating a Name Seed
Once you know what the name is going to attempt to convey – which comes from the category – you can start generating Name Seeds. I take the chosen descriptive element and apply each of the variations, one after another, until a name suggests itself. If it contains the right nuances, then I keep it; if not, then I try the next variant. If none of them works, then I go back to the Category and look for an alternative category.
Okay, so I have a Name Seed. Now What?
Once you have a Name Seed, it’s time to start turning it into names that are suggestive of the Name Seed or of one of its synonyms. The logical connection to the final name can be immediate or tenuous, straightforward or evolving through many links of “A suggests B suggests C”. The whole concept of Name Seeds is not to give you a name directly as much as it is to direct and guide your thinking when you are trying to come up with a name.
A couple of examples (some first name, others surnames):
- ‘Gentle’ or ‘Soft’ (Emotional Name Seeds) gives names like “Feather” or “Fern”.
- Wholesome (Psychological Name Seed) leads to “Natural” which leads to “Flower” which gives “Flora” or “Daisy” or “Rose” or “Violet” or “Lily” or any of several other types of flower.
- Trustworthy (Direct Name Seed) gives “Baker’s Dozen” which gives “Baker”†.
- “Gambler” (Inverted), for a character who meticulously plans everything, suggests “Chance” or “Risk”.
- For a corrupt character, “Snouts In The Trough” works as a Metaphoric Name Seed, which leads to Pig, which leads to Swine, which suggests (through a similar sound), “Swaine”. (My apologies to anyone with that surname!)
†Don’t get this connection? The Baker’s Dozen comes from a time when it was forbidden for a Baker to undersell a dozen loaves of bread. To make certain that he met the standards, trustworthy bakers would usually throw in a 13th loaf – so a “Baker’s Dozen” is a sign of honesty, and that connects directly to the name seed “Trustworthiness”.
Multiple Choice Answers
The best Name Seeds are those that give multiple possible names, such as the “Flower” example above. By permitting you to nuance the choice of name, they present the opportunity to integrate overtones and subtle distinctions. If the character is especially beautiful or unblemished, “Rose” might be the most appropriate. “Rose” can also suggest a character that has a confrontational nature that can sometimes be disconcerting because of the association with thorns. If the character is dark and mysterious, or timid, I might choose “Violet”. If the character is sharp-tongued, I might choose “Nettle” which leads to “Nellie”. If the character is especially tall, or elegant, “Lily” works. And if the character is plainspoken, simple, and rural, I might choose “Daisy”.
“Rose” also works for a character who is naive and defenseless by inverting the ‘thorns’ inference. “Violet” can suggest a character who is very “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” by inverting the ‘mysterious’ inference, or a character who is especially prone to violence. A character who is soft-spoken might have “Nellie” from inverting the ‘sharp-tongued’ association. Short and dumpy might give “Lily” by inversion. And whoever would suspect someone named “Daisy” of being a criminal mastermind?
The Sly Merchant
Here’s a more robust example, which is closer to the actual process I use. We have a merchant who overprices and cheats his customers outrageously, for whom we need a name.
I start by considering each of the direct name seed alternatives and listing the name seeds that free-associate with the qualities I want the name to express:
- 1. Physical: Shifty-eyed
- 2. Emotional: Greedy
- 3. Psychological: Grasping
- 4. Equipment: Scales, False Weights
- 5. Occupational: Merchant, Salesman
The next step is to apply the different Name Seed Variations to the chosen Name Seed. Don’t spend much time on this, just a few seconds each. If nothing comes to mind, move on.
Normally, I would pick whichever one of these best summed up the character I had in my minds eye – probably 2, 3, ot 6. But this time, purely as an exercise, I’m going to run all these possibilities through the subsequent steps to demonstrate how many different names can result from this very abbreviated description.
- A1. Physical: Shifty-eyed
- A2. Emotional: Greedy
- A3. Psychological: Grasping
- A4. Equipment: Scales, False Weights
- A5. Occupational: Merchant, Salesman
- B1. Inverted Physical: Steady gaze
- B2. Inverted Emotional: Generous
- B3. Inverted Psychological: Charitable
- B4. Inverted Equipment: Standards
- B5. Inverted Occupational: Buyer
- C1. Aspiration Physical: Sharp-eyed
- C2. Aspiration Emotional: Wealthy, Merchant Prince
- C3. Aspiration Psychological: Owner, Proprietor, Independent
- C4. Aspiration Equipment: Chain (of stores)
- C5. Aspiration Occupational: Royal Commission
- D1. History, Physical: Delivery Boy
- D2. History, Emotional: Poor, Penniless, Urchin
- D3. History, Psychological: Shrewd Investor
- D4. History, Equipment: Travelling Wagon
- D5. History, Occupational: travelling Salesman, wanderer, Gypsy
- E1. Subterfuge, Physical: Blind, Short-sighted, Monotonous, Dull
- E2. Subterfuge, Emotional: Fair
- E3. Subterfuge, Psychological: Trusting
- E4. Subterfuge, Equipment: (no ideas)
- E5. Subterfuge, Occupational: Middleman, Broker, Diplomat, Ambassador
- F1. Metaphor, Physical: Weasel
- F2. Metaphor, Emotional: Scrooge
- F3. Metaphor, Psychological: Penny-thief (from the saying, “He’d steal the pennies from a dead man’s eyes”)
- F4. Metaphor, Equipment: Snake-oil
- F5. Metaphor, Occupational: Silver-tongued, Sharp
Remember, normally I would have only one of these sets of five. From that set of five, I then pick the one that is most suggestive of one or more desired name components.
- A1. Physical: Shifty-eyed -> Sneaky -> Nicky -> Nicholas.
- A2. Emotional: Greedy -> Needy -> Ned.
- A3. Psychological: Grasping ->Grasper ->Jasper (christian name orsurname).
- A4. Equipment: Scales, False Weights -> Fake -> Jake.
- A5. Occupational: Merchant, Salesman -> Seller -> Sellers (surname).
- B1. Inverted Physical: Steady gaze -> Constant -> Constance -> Constantine (surname).
- B2. Inverted Emotional: Generous -> Giving -> Given -> Ivan.
- B3. Inverted Psychological: Charitable -> Charity -> Charlie.
- B4. Inverted Equipment: Standards -> Common -> Bob, Pete, Mike, or some other common name. For Surname, try Smith or Jones.
- B5. Inverted Occupational: Buyer -> Owner -> Keeper -> Keep (Surname).
- C1. Aspiration Physical: Sharp-eyed -> Perceptive -> Eagle-Eyed -> Eagle (surname).
- C2. Aspiration Emotional: Wealthy, Merchant Prince -> Gates -> Gate (surname).
- C3. Aspiration Psychological: Owner, Proprietor, Independent -> Mine, All Mine-> Daffy -> Duck -> Donald (christian name), Duckworth (surname).
- C4. Aspiration Equipment: Chain (of stores) -> Link (christian name or surname).
- C5. Aspiration Occupational: Royal Commission -> no ideas
- D1. History, Physical: Delivery Boy -> Patrick, Sean.
- D2. History, Emotional: Poor, Penniless, Urchin -> Oliver (christian name or< .em> surname).
- D3. History, Psychological: Shrewd Investor -> Wise (surname).
- D4. History, Equipment: Travelling Wagon -> Hatchback -> Hatch (surname).
- D5. History, Occupational: travelling Salesman, wanderer, Gypsy -> Franco, Vladim, Jarno.
- E1. Subterfuge, Physical: Blind, Short-sighted, Monotonous, Dull -> Blind (surname), Freddie.
- E2. Subterfuge, Emotional: Fair -> Looker (Surname).
- E3. Subterfuge, Psychological: Trusting -> Priest (surname), Father -> Faber (surname).
- E5. Subterfuge, Occupational: Middleman, Broker, Diplomat, Ambassador -> Deal (surname).
- F1. Metaphor, Physical: Weasel -> Wiezel (surname), Lawyer-> Law (surname).
- F2. Metaphor, Emotional: Scrooge -> Ebenezer (christian name), Ebenezer -> Evan (christian name), Evan -> Evans (surname).
- F3. Metaphor, Psychological: Penny-thief -> Robber -> Robb (christian name or surname).
- F4. Metaphor, Equipment: Snake-oil -> Rattlesnake -> Rattle (surname).
- F5. Metaphor, Occupational: Silver-tongued, Sharp -> Lucifer.
Again assuming that I only had access to one of these sets, I would end up with names like:
- A. Direct: Nicholas Jasper; Jake Sellers.
- B. Inverted: Bob Constantine, Peter Keep.
- C. Aspirational: Don Gate, Charles Petersgate, Charles Duckworth, Don Eagle, Eagle Link.
- D. Historical: Patrick Wise, Sean Oliver, Oliver Hatch, Jarno Hatch.
- E. Subterfuge: some excellent surnames but the only christian name doesn’t go with any of them.
- F. Metaphor: Evan Law, Robb Law, Robb Wiezel, Ebenezer Rattle, Lucifer Wiezel.
Of these, my favorites would have to be Jake Sellers, Charles Duckworth, Jarno Hatch, and Ebenezer Rattle. But, I wouldn’t actually have these results grouped like this; instead I would have all the “1″ results together and all the “2″ results together, and so on, to form the sets of options. And that arrangement leads to names like:
- 1. Nick Constantine, Patrick Eagle, Sean Blind, Jonathon Law.
- 2. Ned Oliver, Ned Evans, Ivan Gates, Oliver Looker, Ebenezer Gate.
- 3. Jasper Duckworth, Don Wise, Jasper Priest, Robb Faber
- 4. Jake Link, Link Smith, Bob Hatch, Peter Rattle
- 5. Franco Seller, Vladim Keep, Jarno Deal, Lucifer Keep
Again, a number of very workable names. My favorites from
But notice how we’ve gone from a simple and incomplete character description to having a choice of names, and probably in less time than it takes to actually read that short-list.
Name Seeds as Generators
If you have a Name Seed to work from, you can use it as the foundation for any other aspects of the character that are not predefined when you need them. “Nick Constantine” carries overtones of the mysterious in my mind, while “Jonathon Law” suggests a superficial simplicity adorning a more complex character with internal contradictions. “Jasper Duckworth,” as a name, reeks of old money and mining interests to my mind, implying a backstory concerning the circumstances which led to the character being a moderately successful merchant; there is also a hint of a dangerous edge to the character. “Ebenezer Gate”, on the other hand, carries overtones of authority, perhaps the past ruler of a small community who was cast down and is making his way back up the ladder of power; there are hints of dark deeds and a ruthless determination.
The name itself is doing a lot of the work of generating the character.
Using the name in this way ensures that it provides a central focus to the character, and defines the character as a “simulated individual for whom this is a good name” – thereby bringing into the game the entire list of benefits that I extolled in part 1 of this series.
Unlocking The Roleplay
If a good name is doing its job properly, the name itself is enough to get your thinking into the particular mindset of the character. It becomes a touchstone that you can use to immediately get yourself into character, ready to roleplay an interaction with a PC.
What’s to come in Part 3
Obviously, there’s still a lot of ground to cover. The examples offered in this discussion of Name Seeds all involve a fairly standard christian name-plus-surname structure, but the gamut of possibilities is much broader than that; before you can actually turn a name seed into a character name, you need to nail the appropriate Name Structure down. We haven’t even touched on alien and non-human names, or the social implications of name structures. These are questions that integrate a name into a campaign, rather than having them float above it, separated by a vast associative disconnect. And then there’s the question of foreign characters…
- 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)