A Rose by any Other Name

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 21 April 2010

Figuring out character names is really hard for me. The problem is entirely within my own head too, which makes it even more difficult. Somehow, when I was a child, I got this idea that the name needs to mean something. Not the sound of the name or how it rolls off the tongue, but the names themselves. When I would try to write fiction as a teenager, I would sit there with baby book in hand and..still come up with nothing. First, I would page through the book, trying to find a name with a meaning the conveyed some extra understanding of the character, a bit like an artist who puts little hints about their work in the background. I would then try to randomly pick a name, but I was never really happy with the outcome. Eventually, I would just give up on the act of writing itself, frustrated that I couldn't even do something as easy as name a character.

Even then, this importance I attached to names seemed silly, but I was stuck. Fast forward about 20 years and the problem remains. Not only that, but now I get to name even more characters. So, I've come up with some coping mechanisms.

  • Do the rest of the planning first. Sometimes as you plan, the name will come to you. This is how I came up with C.C. Clementine and her brother Darius.
  • Steal names from other places. The ruling noble, Sirius Darkmagic, was named for Sirius Black. He is a great-great uncle of my first character, Sarah.
  • Name them for what they do. I was having a hard time thinking of a name for Sirius' wife. Then I decided she had the old blood of Arcadia in her veins and often sang songs of the fabled land. It may be silly, but naming her Melody helped reinforce that connection. Similarly, two Dragonborn blacksmiths became Hammar and Anvil.
  • Be random. Not every name needs to mean something.

While it's not a perfect fix, these guidelines help me a lot. Sure, sometimes I'll pick a really stupid name and break the suspension at the table. But most of the time, my players are more than happy to just roll with it.


I have the same issue, and sometimes get hung up on names. Your idea of just designing around them is a good one.

I also watch out for falling into ruts. I had this bad habit of naming characters after colors. (Though once your players recognize such a habit, you can use it to say something about the characters.)

For really exotic names, I abuse ancient languages. Elves in my current fantasy campaign have names based on Greek words, and I use Mayan for lizardfolk.

If you haven't, you may want to check out the Story Games Name Project. Basically they got a whole lot of people to open source name creation, and the net result is a huge book of names that is designed with gaming in mind (so in addition to being usefully categorized, things are numbered for die-rolling) and free (or available as an at-cost book from lulu). I bought the physical book and it's an indispensable resource, but you can just look at the files themselves. There's even a few random generators based on them up at Abulafia.

Seriously, I don't even know where my baby name books are anymore. Goodwill maybe. it's that useful.

-Rob D.

I cheat with names all the time. The worst is when I haven't named an NPC, and my players ask for one. A lot of NPCs get named things like "That one guy at the lake" this way.

Generally, I prefer to use the archetype of my character for the name. I figure the players will only forget or mangle a real name anyway, so naming the oracle "the Oracle" or the empress "the Empress" saves a lot of confusion. Refer to characters by their titles, helps the players remember who they need to talk to a lot more easily.

I agree, the best names just kind of happen as a result of creating the story. Buuuuuut, for other times I use http://www.behindthename.com/

You can search for the meaning you want, and it lists all kinds of names. It also has a random name generator.

When I get to DM, I keep a page of male and female names because I'm horrible with NPC names on the spot. I just pick an appropriate one from the list and write down who it is next to the name so I don't reuse it.

I'm another who tends to go with the language-thematic, started in part by a game I played where it was an enforced conceit of the campaign to help with cultural differentiation. Tieflings all had Latinate names; humans were Welsh/Cornish; dwarves were Old Germanic, and so on.

I still find myself thinking in related modes.

There's another game you might like checking out, Sarah, where names do explicitly have meanings. It's called Everway -- see whether you can get your hands on a copy.

One trick I use is to take a name I already use (or one I like in real life) and change a consonant or vowel. Then change another one. Usually you get a name that is close enough to the original that it could be a member of the original's family, or you could make it different enough that it seems unrelated.

Usually, before I run the first session of a campaign arc, I write a list of 25 names. I keep this list with me during the whole arc - when I need a new name I just go down the list and pick the next one. This works for random NPCs that may or may not make a difference in the campaign, and it also works for place names and townships if you get stuck.

For most of NPC names I use random name generators and just keep generating names till I come up with one I like. For my cleric though I was inspired by my tried and true gaming pencil, the "Mirado" Black Warrior. I added a last name and I was on my way.

Naming characters is also my Achilles heel so I can totally feel your pain. I struggle with it when it comes to writing fiction and when I create my role playing characters (haven't switched to the other side of the screen . . . yet). I've done the baby name book thing in the past too, but I finally decided to outsource the job to someone else. If I can't come up with a decent name in time, I get one of my friends (who now bears the nickname Vizier of Nameology) to come up with the name for me. It's worked pretty well so far.

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