Whether it’s in fiction, marketing, D&D or those less important things like children the name you give something can be very important. A name is one of the first impressions that people get in many circumstances and whether you chalk it up to amazing coincidences or not there could be some important consequences to those names.
Who knew that the real problem with your kids was that you didn’t name them “Musician”, “First Baseman” or, “Responsible”? Ah well, Dave and Jennifer will have to make do with what they got.
I’ve thought often about one of my weird creative quirks which is that I can take anywhere from five minutes to several weeks in order to name anything ranging from streets all the way up to entire worlds. Its imperative to me that a name fit and feel right which is fantastic when you’re trying to explain your process to someone who was nice enough to ask. Waiting until something feels right in a creative sense is like telling someone to complete a puzzle while wearing a blindfold.
“I dunno, it’ll just feel right when you get it.”
I’d tell me to go fuck myself at that point or at least glare pointedly. Unfortunately a lot of the time its kind of the truth at least, I think, for the majority of us. I have heard people who can name things creatively and uniquely straight off the dome and its fascinating every single time. I want nothing more than to take a peek inside their brain so I can witness the process that formed their answer, not because it would reveal any secrets but because like watching an episode of “How It’s Made” I just want to see the machinery in motion. I remember vividly an episode of the Penny Arcade Podcast where Mike asked Jerry to come up with a cool alien insect name on the spot and without hesitation he spouted the name “Broodax” (Skip to ~28:30) which ended up spawning one of their all time funniest comics.
So how is it done?
I’ll tell you this much straight up, I don’t actually know.
I can already hear the disgusted scoffs wondering why I even bothered to write this, which is fair, but that answer was not to say that I don’t at least have a couple basic ideas which I would love to share. The other thing I wanted to briefly say is why I think its important to write about things that I may not have definitive answers for, to let others who may struggle know that its not unusual to get stuck. Whats more is that its not bad to get hung up on things you think are important because you want them to be good, memorable or evoke a certain feel. The fact that we care enough to get stuck trying to really nail some particular aspect should not be a reason for frustration but rather an opportunity for some introspection. If for no other reason than because we’re passionate about it. We may not be able to adequately enunciate why that is but it might be worth exploring.
Not too long ago I was faced with something like this myself when my friend Nate, who plays in my D&D campaign, offhandedly told me following a description of a centaur’s hair-do, “You’re like the George R.R. Martin of hair.”. I didn’t dwell on the comment much in the moment but ever since then whenever I’m writing up a description I have to laugh because that seems to be the one characteristic I expound on the most.
Why? Even if I wanted to spend time in this article explaining it I honestly couldn’t if I tried. It’s not something I do on purpose but of all a characters mundane physical details I apparently like describing their hair. I don’t put in any particular effort or extra time to do it, it just sort of… happens. If you find something like that by accident or someone points it out to you, explore it. Embrace it and have fun with it, whatever it might be.
At any rate, back to the subject at hand… which was—Ah, right,
It may be because you’re a perfectionist or simply so that you can avoid situations like this one that Matt Mercer found himself in on Ep 44 of their Tal’Dorei campaign. Or Wil Wheaton’s somewhat legendary meltdown (~00:45) and ensuing running joke over Mike instantly ruining all of the work he put in to naming his character. Effort he hope would save him from a stupid nickname but only resulted in being called “Al” fifty seconds into his first session.
Either way what this is all meant to say is the time spent on finding the right name for whatever it is you’re doing is a worthwhile endeavor and something that I think most creators struggle with from time to time. I cant even imagine the stress you’d have to go through naming a newly discovered species of something, I mean that thing is real and that name will exist forever, at least for me the things I name generally stay confined to my Google Drive, a notebook or my kitchen table and a group of inebriated players.
So if we’re going to put in the effort to make good names then what are some tips about how to do that?
Read. I don’t mean that to sound like the whole “It’ll feel right” thing we discussed earlier but it really is true, read and read a lot. Part of creating regardless of your field is understanding what else already exists in the space within which you work. If you’re lucky enough to have such a unique idea that you pioneer an entirely new area then this shouldn’t really apply to you, you get to set all the rules going forward. For the rest of us it helps to see examples, patterns and discover naming conventions that we like. For instance I went through a period of my creative life where I really, really like having apostrophes in the middle of all my names. No joke, first name, last name, both, single or multiple apostrophes, it didn’t matter, I liked the way it looked but I wasn’t actually concerned with how it would sound. A lot of this came from reading and not really saying the words out loud to myself, it was a visual exercise that didn’t extend much beyond that.
Now, its important to note that you’re not looking to simply take the things you like and use those or imitate them as closely as possible with the stuff you create but it can provide helpful starting boundaries for you to push beyond. The easiest way to explore into new territory is by taking a look at what has been discovered already. By no means do you have to to go looking for new territory to play around in as the styles, tropes and, conventions that have already been discovered are perfectly valid frameworks to use.
History. Read some history, especially cultural history and the important figures therein as well as geographical information to see how they named their cities and landmarks. Were they named for people, events, landscape or some myth born from the area? These can help you build your own lore and identify when a name or style feels right for what you’re designing. If you want to really get into it you can look into how naming conventions changed as populations began moving and mixing more, as well as how it lead to the consolidation and shortening of surnames.
Random Generators. I know it can feel a little like cheating to use these and I’m not saying you should use them as your own original ideas but they can certainly be a good resource when you’re stuck and need something to get the wheels turning again. Sometimes you get stuck on the rails of an idea and before you know it you finally disengage in the middle of nowhere with zero idea how to get back. Use these to get the idea train back on track. The same goes for rolling on dice tables for name generation. I rarely if ever use the actual result from it but it can sometimes spur an idea for a name I really do like. As much as we all love Bob the NPC there are only so many times you can get away with it and once you introduce Bobbina with a straight face its time to up your game.
Most importantly beyond all the reference materials and tools to help inspire you the biggest thing to remember is that you connect with it. That it feels right for your intention and evokes the feeling that you had in mind. It may sound funny to others or may not have the intended effect but like in every other endeavor a 100% success rate is little more than wishful thinking. It’s not an argument to keep you from aiming high but don’t be discouraged if you fall a bit short, everyone does now and then, it’s part of how we learn to improve.
Have fun with both your successes and failures, take inspiration from the discussion the names prompt and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when something you come up with is unintentionally funny. Mark my words, it will happen.
If all else fails, the group doesn’t really have to survive their next encounter, do they?
As I said at the beginning for me this is a difficult process to put into words but what about you? What tips and tricks do you use to fill up your maps and lists of characters with interesting names?
Until next time, happy rolling!