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On Picking Character Names for a Historical RPG

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On Picking Character Names for a Historical RPG

Post  Sharpiefan on Fri Dec 02, 2011 5:18 am

On Picking Character Names for a Historical RPG
With Special Consideration for RPGs set during the 18th Century and Later

Obviously, when making a new character, one of the primary things to consider is your character's name. It is like choosing a name for a baby. You have to think about various things when choosing a name: The character's sex, the combination of first and last names, any middle names, nicknames that may arise from the character's initials or a short version of the name. Another thing you will have to take into consideration is the character's status.

When creating a character for a historical board, you must also take into consideration the period setting of the board. It would break the setting to have an upper-class Roman named James, for example, but the same name would fit a 17th Century – or later – board perfectly. But your 17th Century James would not have his name shortened to Jim, which is a late 19th or early 20th century invention. An upper-class male would most likely be called James by his family and close friends, whereas a lower-class male would be more likely to have his name shortened to Jem or Jemmy.

Male or female?
(This part is not designed as a debate on gender identity.) Bear in mind that many names that are now considered to be female names were originally male, for example Vivian and Meredith, and these names would be used by the upper classes. The novelist Evelyn Waugh was male.

Parents' sources
Again, the sources a parent would use in naming their child would depend very much on status. Lower class parents would be influenced by the Bible (during the Middle Ages and onwards), the ruling family – during the Georgian era, the male name George was extremely popular among all classes. Upper class parents with a Classical education could also choose names from Greek or Roman legends, although they would be more likely to choose heroic names such as Lysander, Hector, Horatio.

Middle names
To have middle names as we know them is a very recent phenomenon. Middle names were not at all common before the 19th century, and even then, middle names would not likely be given to children of lower-class families. Again, the same kind of sources would be consulted. When choosing a name for your character, consider how often he is likely to be referred to by his full name. Does he prefer to go by his middle name rather than his first name? Does she get called by her middle name to differentiate her from her mother? Marie Antoinette was known by both names because her sister was called Maria Carolina, and of course that stuck and we know her by both names. But she, as a member of the ruling classes, is an exception rather than the rule.

Nicknames/Shorts
Names had different short versions historically to modern-day shorts. For example, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the name Christopher would be shortened to Kit not Chris. A James would become Jem, or Jemmy, rather than Jim, because the name James used to be pronounced Jeems. These days we are used to hearing as names in their own right names that used to be diminutives (shorted or nickname versions of names). Jack was a diminutive of John. Nancy would be a nickname for a girl christened Ann/e. Polly and Molly would more formally be called Mary.

Class
For people living in a historical era, class played a far more important role that it does today, and this should also be reflected in historical RPGs. To have a lower-class character with an upper-class name would be pretentious and possibly break the setting, unless the aim is to have him as pretentious and ambitious. The lower classes were more likely to look to the Bible than to Classical legends for name sources. A lower-class character named Zechariah or Jeremiah would be more believable than one named Hector or Jason.

Modern-sounding names
Obviously modern names such as Kevin, Ryan, Letisha and Ashley should be avoided as they will jar with those more familiar with the period. Modern-sounding names such as Jason are plausible – it comes from the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and it is possible to have an 18th century character called Sean – if he is Irish. Here, research is your friend. Google the name, check out such sites as behindthename.com and see when 'your' name was first used and when it became popular.

Unusual names
I don't believe that people in earlier periods were any more or less likely to give their children unusual names. Their sources would have been different from ours, certainly, and this would mean that their names would be different. I know that at least one Victorian child was christened Water at her baptism. Names we consider common would have once been unusual – who can remember the first time they heard someone call their child Chelsea, and now it is hard to remember a time when that was simply an upmarket part of London. If you want to give your character an unusual name, again look to Classical legends, or find one of the many lists of names in the Bible. I will give cookies to anyone who names their next character Hereward, after Hereward the Wake, an 11th Century Anglo-Saxon who led a rebellion against the Normans in East Anglia. It is still a very rare first name.

Some sample names are listed below – this is by no means an exhaustive list, it is simply to give an example. This is focussed on the UK.

Male Names
Arthur:
In fairly regular use throughout the Middle Ages, but became less common after the 14th Century (1300s). Became more widely used in the 18th century and enjoyed a peak in popularity toward the end of the 19th century.

Beverley:
Became a moderately used first name in the late 19th century, but has become rare since the 1950s.

Lionel
Introduced during the Middle Ages, and in irregular use since.

William: (suitable for all classes) Diminutives: Bill, Billy, Will.
A very common name, it was for a period more common than John. It went into a slight decline in the UK in the late 19th Century.

Female Names
Agnes (pronounced Annis certainly as late as the 17th century, if not later)
In common use in the Middle Ages, suffering a decline after the Reformation as it has no Biblical connections. Revived in the 19th century.

Damaris
Appears in the Bible as the name of an Athenian convert, and was taken up as a first name by the Puritans in the 17th century. It has become much less common since as a name.

Jennifer
Became established among English speakers in the 18th century but remained relatively uncommon until the early 20th century.

Laura
Popular in medieval Europe, especially in literary contexts. First introduced as a first name in England in the 16th century and enjoyed peaks in popularity in the 19th century and, more recently, since the 1960s.

Period Setting
Naming conventions have always had their various fashions.

17th Century: Virtue names were very common among the Puritans. Names such as Faith, Hope, Charity and Patience are fairly well-known, but whole phrases from the Bible were used as names, such as Peace-that-passeth-understanding, as well as less well-known names like Tace (Latin for 'silence').

18th-19th Century (Georgian era): Names from mythology and legends became common among the upper classes in this period, although were limited to mortal heroes, rather than taking names of any of the Greek or Roman deities (with the possible exception of Hercules). Names such as Lysander, Hector, Horatio, Iskander, Alexander and Helena, Cassandra, Elaine, Penelope.

Late 19th Century (Victorian era): Flower and jewel names became popular in the reign of Queen Victoria. Flower names such as Rose and Petunia, Hyacinth, Violet as well as slightly more uncommon flower names like Buttercup, Forget-me-not. Jewel names such as Pearl, Ruby, Sapphire, and Garnet (the latter more common for males than females).

Conclusion
I hope this short documentation has provided useful information on suitable names for characters for historical RPGs and will help you in finding a suitable name for your next character. If you have access to a baby name dictionary, take a look through it – or a have a look at a baby names site such as http://www.babynames.co.uk/ or http://www.behindthename.com/

Name generators may help in your search for the perfect name, though I would recommend looking up the origins of any name thus generated to make sure that it is (or could be) a suitable name. http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/ or http://historysideshow.blogspot.com/2009/02/oldtimey-gentlemans-name-generator.html

This site will generate names suitable for 16th century Gaelic (Scottish or Irish) characters: http://medievalscotland.org/scotnames/hng16gaelic/

© Sharpiefan of RPG-D, Historical RPGs and Show the Colours.

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