Overthinking how I name characters, again....

Clark Kent. Nice. Simple. Super.

Something occurred to my wife the other day: the names of "good" characters (i.e. characters designed to be adored or admired or at least pitied by the audience) sound different from "bad" characters (i.e. characters designed to be hated, criticized or feared by the audience).

I would have to agree, in that we often, consciously or unconsciously, seem to pick certain types of names for certain types of characters.

Building a name for yourself

Often, when I come up with a villain name via the seat of my pants, the last syllables are harsher than the last syllables of my good guy names. Also, those harsher sounding syllables often make the face sneer or growl or glare when they are said.

With "Drake" for example, the hard K sound makes the teeth come together and the lips peel away from the teeth, making, for the briefest of seconds, the same sort of face a dog makes when it growls.

Of course, free association also makes one conjure up the image of a large, deadly reptilian monster even as a character named Drake is being introduced, and the subliminal juxtaposition of the images can be powerful.

Looking at some cherry-picked villain names from popular culture, I see some vindicating examples.

"Entreri" sounds like "Entrails". "Drizzt" sounds like "Chocolate Drizzle". Drizzt wins the free association game.
  • Batman's Joker makes a sort of growling sound with the last syllable, and is of course creepily ironic.
  • Drizzt Do'urden's Artemis Entreri has a lot of syllables, and a lot of syllable seem to imply that the character is cunning. Long names they associate with longer, more complex, higher register words like sesquipedalianism.
  • The name "Mordrid", from various versions of King Arthur's tales sounds like "morbid" and "dread"  made a baby. Plus you can really extend that last syllable into a very, well, dreadful intonation.
How bout hero names?

  • Batman's Bruce Wayne. "Bruce". Doesn't that sound so strong, so manly, so architectural? Like Brace or Brute? Bruce sounds like a person you don't really want to cross.
  • Superman's Clark Kent. Its a nice, short, monosyllable name. "Clark" is simple, but hard. Kent is firm, and the "Ken" syllable inclines one to smile when the say it.
  • A Princess of Mars of John Carter. John is another monosyllabic, flat, unassuming name. Carter is a surname implying that he comes from a family of freighters, is also non threatening, and even associates with the image of a friendly trader coming in with lots of goods to buy.

Now I got that warm and fuzzy feeling of confirmation bais. Ohhhh yeaaaaah....

What does this mean for gaming, or writing?

For both, it means only as much as you put into it. Your evil general bent on subjugating a free world with a spaceship fleet could be named Allison, and the hero destined to blast her battleship in the butt burners could be named Jane, and that could be that. 

You can insert symbolism in interesting ways though, by playing with names. You can go heavy handed, naming a sexy male tempter Cassanova, or Damien (like "Demon") or Lyle Sweet ("Sweet Lies").

Say you have a Papal conspiracy game, ala Da Vinci code. You could go a more subtle, ironic route and name your investigator Christian (as in Christ is investigating his own naughty church). You could be even MORE obtuse by naming the nosy bastard Wednesday. Then you could have a scene where someone poignantly explains the irony: Wednesday is (as far as I know) is derived from the Nordic Woden's Day, and Woden is another name for Odin, the chief god of the Norse pantheon, who was also a wiley and wise old curmudgeon. The irony of course is that Odin, the god that the Christians ousted, is now unveiling their rotten core.

You can also take advantage of our natural inclinations to names. Need to make the PC's trust a traitorous NPC? Try Juan, or Allison, or Hayley. Names that make you smile, reassuringly when you say them. 

Need to make an NPC that the players will falsely accuse? Brick (the PC's think "that can't possibly be the supergenius millionare mastermind!"), Rothchild (associates with "child of wrath"), Diablo (means devil en espanol). 

Need a nondescript NPC, but still need a name? Try "J" names: John, Jenny, Joe, George (sounds like a J). Jack might be memorable though (Jack Sparrow, Jack of All Trades, Jack Bauer of 24, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan). 

Need a meat head name? Go for monosyllables with deep baritones: Tom, Dick, Joe, Brick, Tiny, Smalls, Bigs, Fist, Chunk, Stew

Need an evil genius name? Go for many syllables, tons of vowels, and higher pitches. LeSeveire, Mordenhiem (from Ravenloft), Glaslogoth, Allendrill, Severum, Medici, Detestablis, Nightshade. If you can drag out that last syllable for a few seconds, kinda tapering it off into a little growl or moan, all the better.

At least we know Mordenhiem's insanity isn't caused by lead poisoning.

Names that are nouns or adjectives can be fun: Wiggles the Murder Clown (one of my favorite NPCs), Sky the farm girl, Sparkle the Nosferatu-cum-fashionista, Hype the Techno-bard, Father Slaughter (real last name, by the way) the inner city Priest, Signal the radio wave blasting supervillian, Safety Holmes, the last student to survive a high-school pep rally zombie attack... 

Need authority figures? That's in a name too. Doctor, Sargeant, The Right Honorable, Sir, Madam, Lady, Lord, ... of [creepy place name], and so on.

Inspiration for names

I find so much fun with names that it is damn easy for me to go overboard. I can get really corny when I use this tactic for getting names. I introduce an NPC, and while I am drumming up a name I look around me, at objects, receipts, book spines, anything with words on it. My computer might inspire me to name a modern NPC Hewlett or Packard. For a superhero or sci fi game, Peroxide sounds like a neat one. If I introduced an innocent farm girl, who will soon betray the PCs, but only to save her mother, and make crap-tons of loot, then Dew (from the Mountain Dew on the table) would be an awesome name.

For more serious times, and when I have time to overthink something, I can list words that are associated with my games themes and twist them to suit me. Say I'm running Werewolf, and I need a Pentex exec/Fomori mutant badass. What things do Fomori like and Garou don't? I list: Pollution, Violence, Perversion, Bloodlust, Corruption, Bigotry, Twinkies, BPA. Here are some names form that list: Mr. Persons (perversions), Francisca Blood, Damien Lucent (light demon), Violet Landers (violent slanders)

So there you have it. Layers of meaning in names. My advice is to take this advice sparingly, unless you are like me and love the corniness. Otherwise everyone will know who the villain is when you introduce Sgt. Red Dethridge to your modern spy game.

Then again, maybe that what you need them to think........

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