Reverb Gamers 2012, #7

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Saturday, 07 January 2012 Written by Steve

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #7: How do you pick names for your characters? (Courtesy of Atlas Games. Visit them at www.atlas-games.com)

A lot of it depends on the context. If I'm at the game table making up a character for a one-shot, it's usually based on whatever name pops into my head or whatever random words or names I happen to see nearby on books or posters or whatever's lying around. If I'm making up a character or GMC for a longer-term game or for a Hex product, I usually try to put a little more thought into it and try to come up with a name that reveals a little bit about the character. There are a lot of (mostly unquantifiable) factors that contribute to coming up with a name that fits the character, the biggest of which is probably the knowledge base and cultural touchstones of the audience. For example, 20 years ago most people would have assumed that a character named "Ashton" was a rich white guy who was most likely British, or at least snotty. Today, the same name is more likely to suggest a hipster in a trucker hat who's into older women.

A few thoughts/guidelines/tricks:

  • If you're playing a period game, want to use the character's name to convey age, or just want a character to have a vibe of being born in the wrong time, Google "popular names of [time period]" and you should find lists of names for that era ranked by popularity. Since a lot of people seem to use this trick, it's usually a good idea to dig down past the top 20 or 30 so that you don't end up with one of the names that everybody uses for characters for that particular era. (There are only so many old ladies name Mildred, after all). 
  • Another trick is to use names that reference characters from movies, books, or even other games. In some cases, I'll combine first names and surnames from two characters of the same general archetype I'm shooting for to come up with a character name. For example, my Elvisomancer, Clarence Ripley, got his name from Christian Slater's charger in True Romance (who talks to Elvis in bathrooms) and Nic Cage's character in Wild At Heart (who kinda thinks he is Elvis). If you use this trick, it's usually best not to be blatant about it, since picking a name that's too closely associated with a single character ("Ash," for instance) can cause the character who inspired the name to overshadow the character you're playing.
  • Monosyllabic names, especially male ones, (Jack, Bruce, Chuck) usually suggest directness, strength, and action. Action-oriented last names are often the names of tough materials, simple tools, or weapon-related words (Steel, Hammer, Magnum). 
  • When it comes to surnames, more syllables usually means more wealth because the idle rich have more time to write out and say all those long-ass names than poor people. A hyphenated last name, especially when both components are conspicuously WASPy, probably means the character is loaded. Likewise, last names used as first names ("Prescott," "Jefferson") tend to be more common among the wealthy.
  • Diminutives like "Jimmy" or "Bobby" often indicated youth, inexperience, or incompetence. The exception to the rule is a diminutive paired with a nickname ("Jimmy the Fish," "Lucky Bobby"), which often suggests a character involved in criminal (or at least shady) activities.
  • Smart or nerdy characters often have outdated or unusual names like "Irving" or "Wilbur."
  • Really outdated names (Aristotle, Spartacus) are often used to indicate wealth, arrogance, or extremely specialized (often occult) knowledge. 
  • Sometimes a boring given name is fine if the character has a cool nickname to fall back on. The best nicknames don't make sense unless they're explained.
  • Ethnic names can be tricky, since names that are too conspicuously ethnic can sound like racist caricatures. Unless you're making a character for an exploitation genre game, it's usually good to either Americanize part of the name, give the character a non-ethnic nickname, or at least go with uncommon ethnic surname. 
  • Always avoid names that have been overused for a particular type of character, unless you're going for intentional cheesiness. For example, the name "Rex" for a squared-jawed man of action should be restricted to B-Movie and pulp games.
  • Never make a character who's entire hook is a funny (and especially, a punny) name. The joke's going to get old fast, so if you're going to play a character with a stupid name, at least make sure there's some substance there.



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Reverb Gamers 2012, #7.
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