Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Building Character: What's in a Name?

Welcome back everybody to Building Character, an in-depth series detailing how to build RPG heroes (or villains) chalk full of character! Last time I discussed how you can turn the mechanics of the game into more poignant character traits, and this time I want help smooth out the rough edges of your character and look at the finishing touches of the character sheet: name, height, weight, age, gender, deity, etc. To some people those are the most important decisions of the character, but to others they’re stuff decided at the end, usually by a generator, and they don’t put much stock into these choices. That’s fine mind you, most of those choices are rather meaningless, but when you do put thought into them they carry much more meaning than something a random number generator came up with.

Let’s start by looking at the name which is admittedly one of my weaker areas. It’s not that I don’t like having depth behind a name mind you, but rather that the best names usually have meanings behind them, and I’m awful at picking that sort of stuff without feeling like it’s coming off cheesy. Caitlin was an exception to this rule however as I did put a good deal of work into her name (at least more than “name this character after someone from LOST” which was my MO most of the time). For Caitlin I picked something Irish for a few reasons: 1) I’m part Irish and damn proud of it. 2) I wanted something foreign. 3) Irish names have an elven look to it. Caitlin (pronounced “Cat-Lean”) looks a lot more exotic than “Katleen” which would be the standard spelling of the same name. Cormac was another Irish name, meaning raven which I went with just for alliteration sake. Originally I was going to call Caitlin Rose, or rather the Gaelic expression for “child of the rose” as I was going for a “rose” theme with Caitlin (punctuated by naming her rapier the “Thorn”). In the end I decided against this theme as the names didn’t do anything for me, and I decided on Caitlin. I like the name a lot now, and I’m glad I put some decent work into it.

The most work I put into a name though was for Eli DeLucci. Both parts had significance. DeLucci is Italian for “the light” which worked well for Eli being a cleric of Pelor. I’ll admit I sorta stole that theme from One Piece’s Rob Lucci, a villain whose name basically meant “robbing light”. I knew a DeLucci in school though who explained what his full name meant, so that’s what I worked off of. Eli was not a reference to Eli Manning (QB for the New York Giants) as many have suspected. Rather I wanted a biblical name for Eli considering his backstory. I went through the major prophets and couldn’t find a name that worked, but I eventually settled on Eli as the name. I find the bible to be a great source of names for characters if you’re curious. Name your next hulking behemoth Samson and you’ll instantly like him more. Trust me.

Also, if you’re ever really stuck for a name try opening up an old year book and finding former classmates with awesome last names. I’ve used this trick several times before.

To be blunt, names should carry some sort of meaning. I know not all parents name their kids with any sort of thought put into it, but look at it this way. You have two cities: “Fairview” and “Dubnard”. Without knowing anything about these two cities, which one seems more interesting? To me, Fairview is stock. It’s not intriguing and there’s not very likely to be an interesting story about how Fairview got its name. Dubnard on the other hand? Well the immediate question is “where does the name Dubnard come from?” Might it be based off of a king or the city’s founder? Maybe it’s based on a festival that is intrinsic to the town’s identity. Maybe it’s the name given to its people by a goddess who says in her tongue Dubnard means “strength” or “hope”. The point I’m getting at is something being strange for the sake strange gives you the opportunity to come up with a reason for this down the line. Remember that you don’t need to have a full idea in your head when you come up with something, so leaving an opportunity explain it down the line is a great tip to follow.

Now let’s move onto two stats that I fully admit I ignore for the most part: Height & Weight. In real life these two measurements nearly define us in many cases, but in my fantasy RPG I couldn’t care less if my Barbarian is ideal weight or not. Still, it’s worth paying attention to these numbers as they can be used to help flesh out the image of the character in your mind which is essential to a medium of storytelling where all you have is your imagination. I understand some people aren’t crazy about weight /height measuring, so a protip would be to use other people’s heights/weights. I don’t record you walk around asking people these two numbers though. Instead, look to famous athletes as almost all of them have their numbers posted as official statistics.

Take a warrior for example. I might build a warrior who is stout and speedy, so the build of linebacker would be a good idea like Patrick Willis (6’1”, 240 lbs.) Or I may want a big and powerful warrior shielded in thick plate built like Defensive End Justin Tuck (6’5”, 274 lbs.) Or maybe you want a less pristine champion and you envision a more hefty and brutish fighter, like Offensive Guard Jahri Evans (6’4”, 318 lbs.) You can do this for swimmers, gymnists, basketball, sumo, heck, anything. Personally for Caitlin I just used my sister’s height of 5’7” as that’s an average height for a girl. For weight I put her in the mid 120’s after looking up healthy weights for a woman of that height, then subtracting about ten pounds due to being an elf. Not a flawless system, but it works better than picking numbers and having a 5’6” 314 lb. wizard.

Now onto gender, and I’ll use this moment to address the audience regarding a question I receive a lot: “Why do you always play women in roleplaying games?” First off I don’t “always” play women. The two most famous characters my audience knows of (Juliet and Caitlin) both came about after a male character (Sayid and Eli) left the party. In addition my first character and longest running one I should add was Leo Castillo, a guy. But more importantly playing a woman doesn’t feel strange to me, at least no more strangely than playing anything else. When I roleplay I like to have my character be separate from myself and I’ve found swapping gender to be a very easy way to help keep me in the mind of a different person.

Personally (and I must stress that these are my own personal views) I view gender as one of those last minute options. I know a lot of people will disagree with me as they view gender to be pivotal to a character’s identity, but for me it’s just a check box you have to make. I don’t view gender as a character trait as aside from biological difference, there’s nothing absolutely associated with either gender. When I make a character I think in terms of personality like attitude, arrogance, bloodlust, personal vendettas, fears, dreams, secrets, etc. Choosing to be a woman or a man doesn’t force me to be anything else, at least not something not dictated by the setting. If it’s a world where women are viewed as property and the idea of a female knight is taboo, then yeah picking a gender might have string attached, but in general I feel you should do with what you want to do. If you’ve never played a character of the opposite gender before, I recommend giving it a try. Just remember that “girl” and “guy” aren’t character traits. Acting excessively feminine or masculine is, but on your own just remember that gender doesn’t define a role. For Caitlin I’m playing a headstrong, brash, loyal to a fault, determined, and protective elf that happens to be a woman. All of these traits could easily be carried over to a male character, and nothing would change except the relationship with Dhother (either it would be nixed, or I’d make the male character gay).

Anyway, the final topic I want to hit on is deities as lord knows the Wyrmwick campaign has its fair share of dealing with the gods. For a Divine character picking a deity isn’t recommend; it’s required. For other characters though the option is left open for people to pick their main deity of choice or take the option of giving a middle finger to the gods. The latter option is abused far too often in my opinion. Sure the guy who willingly ignores the gods known to be existent in the gaming world is cool, but he’s rather rare, y’know? Picking a god is great for your character as it can help define what they hold most precious in life. A warrior who considers Kord his main deity shows he prides battle most of all, but a knight who worships Erathis daily shows that the expansion of his kingdom is paramount to him. The 4E pantheon is varied enough to work right out of the box (so to speak), but you can always add new gods for flavor. My recommendation though is to think what your character wants most in life, and have them decide who they would pray to most often to ensure good fortune. For Caitlin I decided on Corellon for the sake that Caitlin held tightly onto her elven roots. It doesn’t have to be complex—a short explanation will do.

And that’s it for this edition of Building Character. These details might seem very minor, but they can be essential for getting into the head of the character you want. Having a name adds a level of customization to show this character is yours, and gender/height/weight help to paint a better picture in your head. Same with appearance, but I always sucked at appearance, so no help there, guys (sorry). To some people these choices are at the top of the list when you make a character, but for others (like myself) they’re add-ons to help flesh out your character once the major points are settled.

I hope this helped, and I do hope you’ll return for the finale of Building Character when I take a look at backstories and explain to you how I would build a logical and entertaining history for your hero.

Until next time, Namaste!

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