Battling Burnout: Part 4 - Same Face, Different Name

In this week’s edition of Battling Burnout, I would like to share with you a tip about finding quick and recognizable characters in a tip which I am calling: Same Face, Different Name.

Another issue GM’s face when they are feeling that their tanks empty, is the inability to throw together quick and recognizable characters. Most GM’s will find that they have a limited palette of character types that they can come up with on the fly. This may mean a Game Master has a limited number of accents that they can affect, if any at all. When you are running a game, you are trying to give your players realistic and interesting Non Player Characters to talk to, and in that way you will try to make each interaction sound different in some way. A good GM isn't someone who can necessarily do many different voices, but I feel that good GM’s find ways to add dimension and diversity to their cast of supporting actors.

When your story runs lean on interesting characters, simply steal them! Pay attention to what works in other pieces of literature or media sources. You can redress a character, with the same face and the same soul, but slap on a new name and history. Choose the personality types that fit into your story. In the past, I have based several NPC’s on characters I have seen before in popular media, which really helped me in slipping into their skin and taking on their affectations.

Here’s How You Do It

The next time you are watching a television show or a movie you like, and there’s a standout character that appeals to you, consider writing their name down on a short list with a couple of character traits. Once you have a diverse cast of 20-30 names, you can begin assembling your new NPC’s.

Look through your list and try to re imagine how these individuals might fit in your world. Let’s say that one of my chosen 20 was Malcolm Reynolds from the sci-fi show Firefly. What if I really liked him as a character but wanted to use him in this world of dragons and dungeons? Instead of being a space cowboys and a criminal, he is the leader of the city guard in a medium sized medieval city? I keep the same cavalier attitude, the same wit, and the same sense of duty and honor that made him such a relatable anti-hero. I think he would be a good fit in this new role!

Next, notice what stands out about the character’s names from your list. Most characters are named in very clever ways that have subliminal or very literal meanings. The names writers choose should reveal something about their characters: who they are, where they come from or where they are going. Dwarves in literature have names like Brawn Stonehammer or Grit Thunderfist; Elves have names like Jade Silverthistle or Alena Moonglade. Can you see how Darth Vader is an imposing name, but Skywalker feels lighter and more optimistic?

What is in a Name?

Again in the example of Malcolm Reynolds, his nickname is ‘Mal’ which in Spanish means ‘bad’, and I find that Reynolds is similar to the name Reynard. In European folklore, Reynard was an anthropomorphic red fox that was a great trickster and a peasant-hero. Those are very strong character aspects in Malcolm, and they are traits I want to carry them over to this new character. I can keep the Reynard name because it sounds old and strong, but I want to give him a new first name. A quick Google search for a Latin translation of the word noble resulted in altus, which sounds like a good name already. Another search for a Latin translation of clever profited the word captiosus, so, assigning him the rank of Captain is fairly dead on the nose. And thus Captain Altus Reynard is born.

Now, when Captain Reynard is the NPC that the adventuring party is speaking with, I can clearly picture what he would do or say in many situations. If I picture Malcolm Reynolds clearly in my head, I might even be able to slightly speak in ways as he did, or use mannerisms I remember from the show. My players wouldn't necessarily know that Reynard was based on Reynolds, because I have adapted that character for my own needs, breathing new life into him.

Another Example: In a previous game that I ran, I wanted the players to run into a new character, an apothecary named Quericus Petraea. I felt as if Quericus should be an intriguing character, presenting a challenge as to whether or not the players would trust him. Thus, instead of giving him a pompous voice or a duplicitous voice, I tried to imagine what my apothecary looked like. Instantly I thought of the Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold character from ABC’s TV show, Once Upon a Time. When you see him in the magical forest, he is very crafty and lyrical, often speaking in riddles with a higher pitched childlike lilt. However in the real world, he is more subdued, resonating a sense of calm control. I decided to land somewhere in the middle, talking with a slightly higher pitch with a little crackle. Once I pictured Rumple in my head very clearly and thought about his mannerisms, I felt the character come alive!

I chose the name Quericus Petraea because it was a bastardization of Quercus petraea, the name for a species of oak tree. In his particular culture, it is tradition for their family name or surname to be spoken first. This became more apparent when the party members met his sister, Quericus Alba. This was a specific choice as to make him and his siblings feel a little more alien or eccentric. There is even more layers to the naming device, which i will keep hush-hush for now as my players have not yet revealed all of the family secrets!

Semi-Familiar Names

Another fun naming mechanism is to either: combine two common names to make a less common but pronounceable name, or to take a common name and change a few letters around. The point here is to have a name that feels both familiar and exotic at the same time. Take for example a name like Donica; which is just the combination of Donna and Veronica. Or if you wanted to change a few letters around, add an ‘h” to Adrian to make Hadrian, or swap a ‘sh’ for the ‘g’ in Gabrielle to make Shabrielle. It’s easy to swap vowels around as well, to make Steven into Steavon (pronounced STAY-vuhn) or change Adeline into Odelaine. While they read as different and they serve to add a distinctness about themselves, they still feel comfortable when spoken and are approachable to the players.

As your new characters emerge, you can put them on what I like to think of as an NPC cast list. You now have a list of 20-30 new characters who can be dropped in to populate your world as needed. On my list i have an old jailer, a brutish and slurring fellow named Chester Redstone. There is also a serving-wench named Shireen who is past her prime but still popular in the town. If my players were to show up to a blacksmith's shop and want to know more about the local blacksmith, maybe I swap up my NPC's from the cast list, and now Mr. & Mrs. Redstone fit that role. Chester was once a jailer, now he works the iron while Shireen works at the local tavern on busier nights and festivals but helps him buy his supplies. Now secretly, in my head, I think of Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone, and without being cartoonish about them, their characters make even greater sense to me. Mr. Redstone welcomes them with a powerful handshake and a crooked smile, while Mrs. Redstone has piercingly beautiful eyes but a cold expression.

In summary, we cannot be afraid to inherit good ideas from writers and artists that we admire. There are some great characters already out there, and they have all been influenced by characters that have come before that. For the purposes of your game, be brave and use what works. Don't plagiarize directly the works of another, but allow their good ideas to breath life into NPC's that your players will fondly remember for years to come.

Character Building Exercise:

Continued from the previous weeks, I am building a new character who is undergoing a form of the Hero’s Journey. My heroine starts as an older girl who grew up with her father, a man who was once an Honored warrior that left his Order to live a normal life and to help others. The father dies unexpectedly and thus the girl feels a great sense of loss and a duty to take up her father's mantle. She is befriended by one of her father's closest allies and brothers-in-arms, who promises to train her and give her entry into the elite Order. She is afraid to be alone, and thus she accepts. As she grows and encounters struggles, she learns that her father was betrayed by his ally, her new mentor, and thus she must confront him.

She is dealing with some issues of abandonment, being an orphan, fulfilling duties, and her own personal sense of justice. In that description, I can see her having personality traits like Mulan, Luke Skywalker, Jyn Erso, or even a little Kaniss Everdeen. I do not want to directly lift a full name from one of these characters, but there are some threads that I do want to pull from. For example, family lineage, particularly a patriarchal one is very important. Her last name would be a strong name, one that symbolizes honor and mercy.

While I don't always look for Latin translations, I feel Latin is a good place to start as it affects so much of our vocabulary today. I searched for mercy and the translation was misericordiae. Not a good name on its own, but I do like the cordiae part. I also remember that cor refers to the heart, like in the word coronary or corazón in Spanish. I think that something like Cordiae would be a strong sounding family name. Could Misseri Cordiae have been her mother?

When i look at Star Wars, many of the humanoid characters have short 3-5 letter names. Luke, Leia, Han, Fin, Poe, Rey. They are concise, to the point, and memorable. They could be nicknames to expounded upon later, but something reasonably short may make her more approachable than an Emmanuelle or a Genevieve. I like the idea of her trying to honor her father's legacy too, thus if i keep researching the word honor, I find it translates to eren in Dutch and zu Ehren in German. Eren is a pretty good name, similar to Erin or Aaron. With the ae already present in her last name, what if we add it to her first name, incorporating that ey sound? Aeren. Aeren Cordiae. Her name very loosely means Honor Heart. It feels a little foreign but somewhat comfortable.

Aeren Cordiae. Daughter of Captain Sol Cordiae and Misseri Cordiae. I like the sound of it!

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Keep crafting!