The Name: It’s How You Use It

It sometimes seems like a character’s name (or occasionally lack thereof) is one of her most important features; not only can it occasionally serve as a hint about the character’s purpose, background or abilities, but it’s also the fastest, most concise way to sum up a whole mess of qualities in as few syllables as possible, once the associations are constructed. But I’ve already discussed that, so instead I’m going to bring up something else: use of names between characters rather than between the creator and the audience.

In most cultures, there’s usually a default way that names are approached in a given social context. Family name plus appropriate honorific seems to be common in a lot of real-world cultures; many of us address our peers by their first names alone; on message-boards, the rule is screennames unless invited to do otherwise. But then you can start playing around a bit.

There is, of course, establishing familiarity through nicknames. Shortening a name seems to be pretty much universal, or adding a familiar suffix, or both; other people get nicknames out of aspects of themselves, whether those are visual traits, signature behaviors, or things they did that nobody’s ever going to forget.

Deliberate misconstrual (mispronunciation, addressing someone by the wrong title or honorific, getting the wrong name entirely, just as long as it was done on purpose) is usually used as a way to insult or offend someone. They’re being given a name they can’t stand, not addressed with the proper respect, or treated as someone whose name isn’t worth remembering. But that doesn’t mean that all deliberate misconstruals are necessarily a bad thing; if it isn’t being done in a sarcastic tone, being given a greater title than one expects to be getting in a situation, or having one’s name mixed up with that of an admirable figure, can be quite flattering. This came up in my solo game, when Kiara addressed Kiriko, the PC—someone’s familiar, a group treated as an underclass at best and unthinking extensions of their masters at worst—with the honorific for an equal rather than the typical honorific for an inferior.

How do the characters use other people’s names, if they use them at all? I have at least one character who will not refer to anyone he does not have at least a modicum of respect for by name—or at least, not their own, as he will sometimes refer to them by a prior incarnation’s name instead. Another gives nicknames to everyone, or at least everyone she can call friend.

Once it’s established, you can use change in mode of address as a way to get across that a character dynamic is changing. We all know about the romance trope of switching from title-last name to first name, or the acquisition of nicknames, but that’s not all of it. Take the aforementioned character who doesn’t generally use names; when, during something like the fourth conversation between himself and one of the PCs, he ended it by using that PC’s name, both character and player noticed. Change isn’t always a sign of respect, either; what conclusions are you going to draw when someone who’s always referred to a friend of hers by a pet name stops?

Then there’s taking people’s names and applying them to other things. Some people get nicknames from things they do that nobody will ever forget, but some people do something nobody will ever forget and get their name forever associated with doing that thing. One of my favorite PCs, for instance, used her own family name as a verb; likewise, you might see people talking about “making like [Name]” or “pulling a [Name]“, possibly to the point where it becomes part of the lexicon.

In short, what matters isn’t just what’s in a name. It’s also how you use it.


  1. Michael says:

    (I’m hoping I’m not taking away tomorrow’s topic by saying this, but…) What occurred to me on reading this post is that there can also be a great deal of subtlety in what name the narrative voice uses to refer to certain characters. For instance, in my Sailor Moon fan fiction, although the *characters* are careful to refer to each other by their Senshi names when in their Senshi forms, the *narrative* always refers to them by their civilian names. I feel this helps to emphasise the continuity of the characters, and prioritises their interpersonal relationships over the action and fighting. Yet it seems to be a very rare choice; I haven’t found many other SM writers doing the same.

    Another example, from the novel I’m writing at the moment: the narrative is first-person, and there’s one girl whom the narrator is not very close to, and whom she always addresses by formal title and surname. Yet the narrative always refers to her by her given name. A spoiler, perhaps, since they do become friends later on? If so, it’s not something I mind spoiling; I’d like the reader to be able to guess she becomes important, so that they watch what is revealed about her character more carefully. But maybe it’s more about the narrator’s personality than anything else. She’s sociable and generous, and likes to be someone who’s there for people even when they aren’t her friends. But that doesn’t extend to everyone — for instance, the bullies who hurt her in Chapter 2 are always referred to by their surnames.

  2. UZ says:

    When I develop a character their name is often not finalized, and in many cases I will give them a functional name to carry them until I think of a real one. The functional names are almost always comical ones, which means that in many cases the story will have an undercurrent of humour (which may not match its subject matter all that well). Often in an RPG comedy is acceptable and so the functional names end up staying…

    In these cases I like using names that imply something, whether it’s really correct or not. Lady Camellia Vile, for example, is a very large were-dire-wolf lady who dresses in courtly gowns, defends herself with ostensibly “white” magic and a chauve-souris (“Such a weapon as is fit for a lady”) and talks like Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. Her membership is with the Hideous Four of the Empire of Agony, a paper-tiger set of villains who actually turn out to be all either useless, apathetic, or absent.

    The “Vile” surname actually comes from her unwanted and forced marriage to the late Lord Opprobrious Vile, a regular werewolf, on the basis that no one else would want to marry her (or him). Opprobrious was an obviously awful person, but one day he choked while punitively eating someone and that was it for him. Once he died, Camellia inherited his position in the Hideous Four by responsibility of noble marriage, as they had no children, and the abdication ritual for leaving the group is best left undescribed.

    So the joke is, Camellia is independently an awful person with a pretty first name and an ugly last name. She’s initially made to look like an unwilted flower in an ungilded cage, so that the players (she’s an RPG character obviously) think she’s actually nice and was just trapped in a bad marriage to a bad person. Furthermore, she’s incredibly helpful and a master strategist, which is often enough to save even the worst people from hate in an RPG.

    Trouble is, she really is awful, possibly more awful than her husband. She often tells anecdotes from her past, and after a while players will start to notice a bit of a pattern – or, as one of the other Hideous Four once comments, “Why do all your stories end with you making someone cry?” If anyone makes romantic advances on her, she bluntly tells them in her lah-di-dah singsong voice that they’re not man/woman enough to make her happy, hopefully also making that person cry. The Empire’s greatest threat – the Barbarian Kingdom to the northeast – no longer bothers them because the last time they attacked, Camellia challenged the Barbarian King to personal combat and ended up making him cry during a pre-duel discussion. And it is widely believed that a very depressed were-dire-wolf who haunts the western forests of the Empire was revisited by Camellia sometime in the past and has never been the same since.

    In fact, everyone who has to deal with Camellia ends up sobbing into a hanky sooner or later, except for two of the other Hideous Four. And so the greatest irony is that, even though the Hideous Four were originally set up as a set of “Great Generals of Pain” and then exposed as a group of misrepresented ordinaries who don’t really like each other, they still turn out to be highly functional and excellent at inflicting pain, just like the name suggests.

    So in summation, my naming conventions often involve playing with the expectations that the names imply, because characters are hopefully more complicated than a Dickensian name can necessarily explain.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Michael: No, actually, I hadn’t thought about that.

    UZ: Playing with conventions is fun.

    I once tried to cure my allergy to noun-phrase names while assigning names to a very large group of power-color-coded people, and one thing I inserted as a running joke is a bunch of people whose names fit their personalities and backstories but didn’t work quite so well with their overall color codes. So Scarlet Sea (purple actually) was a funeral singer whose name was all about the symbolism, Amethyst Sirocco (yellow actually) got hers through being raised among devotees of the Overlord of Brazen Trickery, and then there’s Saffron Dawn (red), who… well, it involved her parents, and an overarching plan, and she wasn’t happy with any of it and refuses to go by anything but Saff, or maybe Saffron if you’re close. (Of course, the whole mess was inspired by the how-many-layers-of-meaning-and-linguistic-joke-can-I-fit-into-this Midori (actually blue)….)

  4. UZ says:

    Ah, I was looking at colour-coded power levels for a while – used to be a fantasy story convention in public school. But Amethyst and Saffron never made it onto the chart then, ha. Sounds more like Shinesman :P

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