If there’s one thing that really bugs me it’s when a player character gets named something dumb, inappropriate, or silly. While many players think it’s ok to make up jokey monikers for their characters, I think it’s one of the biggest mistakes we can make at the table.
We do not treat the naming of a human being lightly. Most parents will agonise over the decision when naming their baby. While I appreciate that the creation of a player character is not in the same league as that of naming a child, the principle – that names matter and have power – stands.
Tolkien famously created his own languages for Middle-earth and based the names of characters on the meanings from those sub-created languages. While we don’t have to go to those lengths in our fantasy gaming, I do feel that the idea of connecting a character’s name to something meaningful is important.
My preference, when creating a PC or NPC for my own gaming, is to base names on real-world languages. I usually pick a less-known language and trawl through the meanings of the names which I find. There are plenty of online resources to help with this so it’s really not a big deal or particularly time-consuming.
Why seek to name with meaning? Because the whole point (at least for me) of exploring character is to infuse the imagined person with meaning. The stories that arise from play are enriched by our characterisation and I find that it’s far easier and more rewarding to build a character around a meaningful name.
The vibe I seek is the opposite of just taking modern names or lame jokes and trying to turn them into characters. Experience tells me that some players do this because they are not investing in their characters upfront. Perhaps they expect to die and so naming the character is unimportant. Maybe this is “just a game” and so the idea of characterisation is a waste of time.
For me, however, the name is the heart of things. I remember the Biblical story of Adam naming all the creatures God had created – expressing an understanding of all that there is to say about that animal through the giving of a name. I think of Ursula Le Guin’s idea that our True Name has power and should be closely guarded.
Names are where meaning and power reside. Characters with good names resonate and grow in the imagination. We come to care for them and root for their stories. Others can connect to them and the sharing of names creates community. We can inhabit a character with a sense of reality and belief that is immediately shattered by a careless name.
I say choose your names carefully. I suggest choosing them first. I recommend choosing names with meaning.