Let’s take a short break from the mechanical aspects of creating a character to think about some things so basic you might not even think too much about it until someone asks you, “What’s your character’s name?” In the races section of the Player’s Handbook, there is a list of common names for each race, both male and female, which can be very helpful unless you are human. There are no suggestions for human character names, and human may be the most common character race of all. So where do you go when you’re looking for a character name?
A lot of us got started playing D&D because we were inspired by a book or a movie, probably most often Lord of the Rings. Still, you don’t usually want to name your character after the main character in a book or comic. I mean, come on. If you make an elf archer and name him Legolas, you’re going to look like kind of a dork. Still, if you like the sound of Tolkien’s names, there are a ton of other names in the Tolkien books that will still have a great fantasy feel to them but won’t be as instantly recognizable as one of the main characters. Look in the Tolkien Compendium or the appendices in Return of the King or The Silmarillion. Heck, look at a map; no one said you couldn’t use a place name in Middle Earth as a name for your character. Erebor, Golfimbul, Dol Amroth, Baranduin, Nimrais… there are tons of ‘em. There is so much Tolkien stuff out there that it’s an easy place to start, but most fantasy series will do the same, especially books with glossaries or appendices.
Of course, there’s no reason to limit yourself to fantasy sources. There is an infinite variety of characters throughout literature and history, some famous, some obscure. My first D&D character was named Tjaden after one of German soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front, just because I liked the guy’s name. I don’t remember much about the character, except that like most of the squad he dies during the book! Shakespeare is a great source for names, but any piece of history or literature will do. Sometimes, like Tjaden, the name itself just strikes your fancy. Sometimes there is something about the character that you like and that your character represents. I decided to give that character a last name, and I thought of my character (a paladin with a high Intelligence score) as a tactical thinker and military commander, and I found in the same book the name of General Erich Ludendorff. I thought Tjaden Ludendorff had a nice ring to it, and voila, a character was named.
Another great source for names can be found in athletics. I don’t think athletes really have more interesting names than the rest of us, but if you have a favorite athlete or even just look over sports rosters you can get a concentrated list of names, often from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. The best of all is the Olympic Games, because you literally have the entire world worth of names out there, many of them with that touch of the exotic or unusual that makes a great fantasy name. Natalia Semyenova, Aziz-ud-din Abdur-raoof, Nasrallah Worthen, Surya Bonaly, Svetlana Boguinskaya, Tanith Belbin, Apolo Anton Ohno, Naim Suleymanoglu, Jiri Zapletal… again, the list is endless.
Sometimes a character name can be born out of humor or wit. One player in my weekly game really likes to sew, so she named her elven arcane archer Quilten Singer, for her quilting hobby and the Singer sewing machine company. Your bard might be named after a favorite rock-and-roll singer or guitarist, whether that’s Eddie Vedder or Yngwie J. Malmsteen. It could be a rhyming pun like Danger Ranger, a comedy character like Ed O’Neill, the beer-swilling dad from Married with Children. If your character is a thri-kreen, your character could be Davey Cricket. Heck, you could just name your character after the first word that catches your eye after you finish rolling up your ability scores, which is how you end up with a wizard named Aspartame! On the other hand, watch the comedic names. If your player group groans every time you introduce your character, you might want to rethink your name.
One of the best options, though, is to talk to your DM. Your DM may have created a world (or is using a published one) where there are established languages and cultures. Some fantasy worlds don’t seem to have much variety even in kingdoms and countries thousands of miles apart, but yours may have a lot more diversity. The people in the Kingdom of Aparna may have names that sound Italian while those in Cecala are more Central American and in Sufana they sound Arabic. If this is the case, your DM may have a list of names or can give you suggestions on the sound that character names from different regions would have.
This is an entry into learning more about the world where you’re going to be playing the game and it also helps your character have a place in that world. You might have a nickname like Sting the fighter or Graves the necromancer or Burns the fire wizard, but your character also has a ‘real’ name, one that ties him to a place in the world and helps set up how your character will fit with people from other lands and other cultures.
What’s in a name, after all? It says a lot about what you are thinking about when you think of your character. It also is a starting point for thinking about playing in the world, about your character as a person. Once you get a name, what about your eyes, your hair, your skin, your hair? What about your clothes, your style, how you walk, how you talk? You can talk to the other players as you’re putting together your characters, and you can think about whether you want to have everyone come from the same place or be thrown together from very different cultures and lands. How will you get along together? Sometimes as a new player it is easy to get caught up in the numbers with D&D, since it is a game with so many numbers to keep track of, but something as simple as deciding what you’re going to call your character, your persona within the game, can be the start of getting you in the mood and the mindset of what your character is all about.
Next time, we dig back into the numbers and start looking at skills and feats and how you use them to personalize your character.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.
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