Around 2003 or 2004 I met a gamemaster in Pennsylvania named Tonya. Whenever players at her table struggled to come up with character names she would pull out her secret tool – The Baby Naming Book. Inside this little book were thousands of names sorted alphabetically, separated by gender, tagged by the origin and the book included the meaning of each name. Now you can find this same information online for free at any baby naming website. I’ve added to the process of creating a fantasy character name by adding a surname, location, title or nickname.
Step 1 – Find A First Name
• Edit names as needed – Sometimes I need to make a name sound more elven, more masculine, more wizardly, etc. Tweak names to fit your setting.
• Consider country of origin – If you chose the same country of origin for the names you’re searching for, you can have a consistent sounding population of names to pick from.
• Check names in the back – Make sure to get past the “A” page of baby names. You don’t want 90% of the people in your world to have names that start with the same letter. It would be confusing for your players! This is true for both physical baby name books and websites.
• Don’t use popular names – it could break immersion if your players recognize the names you chose. Look for names that don’t seem familiar to you. Older, ancient names work great.
• Use the meaning – I LOVE finding cool, secret meanings behind the names. I keep these meanings on the NPC’s stat sheets to ground the character concept. Fortunately none of my tabletop players have ever figured out that they could delve into the NPC’s hidden motivations by simply looking up their name’s meaning!
Step 2 – Add a Surname, Location, Title and/or Nickname
• Find real surnames – You can find a lot of surnames online through web searches. These can be edited to make them sound more unique or fit your setting better. Try “Old German Surnames” or “Romanian Last Names” in your favorite search engine.
• Create surnames – Fantasy races by adding two or three words together to make one unique name. Think of Janora Battlesteele, a young dwarf woman.
• Use a location instead of a surname – This is a great way to ground your character’s background geographically. Think of Leonardo DaVinci… These location names can come from real places, or the fantastical locations you have dreamed up in your setting.
• Add a title – Sometimes a land title or a profession title can add depth to a name. Think of Charles Brandon, Lord of Suffolk.
• Give Them A Nickname – Nicknames don’t always have to be the most flattering. They’re usually given by the people around the character. These can be a very fun way to add color to your world.
Name + Profession Title
Character Concept: God of Knowledge, Keeper of The Eternal Histories
Origin Requirement: Greek – used for the root words of the elven mother-language in my setting.
Name Chosen: Arastoo
Meaning: Knowledgeable or Wise (name related to Aristotle)
Title: archivist – noun – a person who maintains and is in charge of archives.
End Result: Arastoo The Archivist
Name + Location
Character Concept: a shy princess hidden among a holy order of clerics.
Origin Requirement: Welsh or Old English
Name Chosen: Isolde
Meaning: Ice Queen
Location: Lamorth – the dwarven mountain fortress where Isolde serves as a cleric in the temple of healing.
End Result: Isolde of Lamorth
Name + Unflattering Nickname
Character Concept: a swashbuckler gone mad with power
Origin Requirement: French – this game was set in 17th century Paris.
Name Chosen: Jeanna – I wanted Jeanne but that name was taken on the game’s server already, so I tweaked it slightly.
Meaning: Jeanne means (godly) grace, so I figured Jeanna could mean ‘physical grace’ for my character. You’re free to hack character names just like any other aspect of world building.
Nickname: Jeanna would knock people off their horses to rob them and stab them to death. If the victim tried to run away, she would shoot them in the back with her crossbow. Lovely woman.
Result: “Bolt in the Back” Jeanna