The “Let’s make a character name!” workshop.

20 03 2011

Reading through Syp’s AFK for this week I found more than a few goldmines, but one in particular really rang true with me: Harry Hol’s article on Naming Characters. This is a favorite rant topic among bloggers (one I’m pretty sure I’ve ranted on myself at least once) and Mr. Hol is pretty spot on. As I read it, nodding my head, I started wondering why anybody would ever name the (literally) millionth orc hunter Xxninjaboix or Epichuntr. I mean, it’s pretty easy to generate a short list of unique names from which to draw a candidate. Then it occurred to me: maybe they’re convinced that making a unique name is more difficult than it really is. Also, many younger gamers consider the word ninja to be intrinsically cool, so having it as a name would be SO AWESOME to them. Then they find that the word ninja is reserved or already taken. After they recover from the shock, they stick to their guns and try variations on their chosen theme. Well, fret not. I’m here to help.

“So, how can we create a unique name?” you say. “All the names from the generator on the character create screen are dumb or even already taken!!1”

Someone will chew me out for saying this, but I’m going to anyway.

It’s easy.

Note that I’m not saying it’s trivial, but it’s also not too difficult. It’s as hard as you make it, and – this may sound weird – the harder you make it, the better your name is going to be. Our goal here is to make a short list of names that are as unique as possible and to – hopefully – find one that you like in the process. I was going to list some common pitfalls to avoid, but that’s been done very thoroughly: here’s a really thorough write-up by Syp from way back that has a lot of good ideas on both what to avoid and what to try. As a matter of fact, that article should be required reading for any new MMO player, anywhere. (If only.)

What I’m going to do here is tell you my name creation scheme. If I want a unique name, here is what I do. Brace yourself for this mysterious and complex formula: I concatenate random syllables until I find something I like.

Step 1 – Random Syllables?

Here are some examples: har, bon, nine, rate, rant, bic, sew, cale, pyre. Note that, at this point, the spelling doesn’t matter at all…we’re really looking for sounds. If you can’t come up with a handful of random syllables that you like, or you just want to ensure more diversity, google for “character name generator” and use a few of those. Cannibalize those names for their parts!!

Step 2 – Build some candidates.

Now we combine them until we find at least one or two that don’t sound like we’re burbling (unless that’s our goal…are we an orc?) thus: Ninehar, Calerant, Pyrecale, Pyrecail, Bonbic, Sewbic, Sewhar, Harsew…sometimes doing this may lead you to other sounds. This is actually an improvisation technique. If you’ve ever taken an acting class or even an acting workshop, you’ve very likely done this. One person says a word and you say whatever word first occurs to you. There is no wrong answer in acting. For our purposes, there are some wrong answers. If a forbidden word pops up (you know, like, ninja) it’s okay as a generator for this process…but not as a solution. So, Harsew makes me think of horse shoe, then Lornhue, um I’m not sure so I glance back at my short list of syllables and Gromnew, Pyrehew, Caleshoe, Calehue. Pyrehuebic, Calerantnine, Calelornbic, Harsewcale, Sewharcale….Sewharcale! Actually, that sounds like Sewer Kale, which probably tastes gross. Drop the ‘e’ and it’s Sewharcal.

Step 3 – How do you pronounce it?

This may sound trivial, but it’s huge as it can impact how you spell it. This is more than half the value of your character’s name since almost everybody that wants to address you in a game will have to type it (or a part of it). So, how do you pronounce it? Where does the emphasis go? Sew-HAR-kal? Sew-har-KAL? There may not always be a way to use spelling to get people to pronounce it correctly on their first try, but that’s okay. This step is more about finding a spelling you like than spelling it in a convenient way. Also, as you try different pronunciations of your proto-names, you may find that one you didn’t like before is actually cool. Say it aloud. Like, with your mouth and vocal folds. Try it.

Step 4 – The sanity check.

Alright, so after this process we’ll have a few names. Sewharkal, Lornhue, and Pyrehuebic are the ones I’ve made here. The sanity check serves one purpose: are any of these names possibly misconstrued as something else? Let me illustrate by example. My blogger tag is “thade”. Generated by this very process…and NOT sanity checked (I had no idea that the monkey-general from a certain movie shared this same name). During that process I had some other options. One of which was “Shi-thaed.” Now, that did get caught by my sanity check. I won’t explain why. Anyway, that’s what this step is for. Google your name. If it comes up empty or with nonsensical stuff, you’re golden. My current winner so far is Sewharkal. When people abbreviate that name, it’s going to be Sew. Sue. People are going to call me Sue. Back to Step 1.

Step 5 – Do you like one (or more) of them?

Now, I know. Most names you generate in this way aren’t going to hit you with love-at-first-sight. Here is my advice: if you don’t HATE it, it’s a candidate. If you’re on the fence, give it a whirl. Why? Because if you enjoy the game and your character’s class, the name will grow on you. Also, feel free to jump back one or more steps and keep those gears turning.

This isn’t easily broken into steps and I bet you see that now. While concatenating or thinking of ways to pronounce the name, new syllables and new concatenations can come to you. Play with them. I recommend jotting down the ones you like. You can do this while waiting 30 minutes to an hour in a head-start queue, but I recommend doing it long before. I will spend my idle time riding on public transit or waiting in lines chugging through different combinations. If I really like one, it will very likely stick with me and I don’t have to look creepy jotting down random syllables in line at the grocer. You know, unless I want to.

I use this method to generate names for all sorts of games. Virtually all of my tabletop RPG character names were birthed from this formula. It’s worked out well for me. I really hope this helps someone else. If even one more person decides to try this method instead of naming himself Xxipunchurface, I will have a party.

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