I’ve talked about naming characters before in a previous article (the second one was about places, in case you were wondering), but I neglected to cover last names, so that’s what we’re going to talk about right now. Mind you, my advice before regarding making up names still applies if you want something super fantasy sounding like “Arthainas” or “Cerdoth,” but this one is all for the more naturally occurring names.
Organic Last Names
See, when last names first started, they weren’t actually last names. They weren’t necessarily something you inherited from a parent (although in some cases they could be). They came up out of convenience. When there are a dozen people named “John” in your village, you need a way to tell them apart. So redheaded John became “John the Redhead,” and John that lives down in the hut by the river and fishes became “John by the River” or “John the Fisherman,” and John whose father’s name was Jack was “John, Jack’s Son.”
As one of the best history teachers I had in high school, the late Mr. Brehm used to say, “most developments in human history happened because people are lazy,” and naturally, these are all quite a mouthful. So John the Redhead becomes “John Redding” or “John Russel.” John by the River or John the Fisherman becomes “John Rivers” or “John Fisher.” John, Jack’s Son eventually becomes John Jackson, and even though the syllables are all the same, the cadence is suddenly different and eventually his children all are “Jackson” too, even though Jack was their grandfather.
So here are some things you want to think about with your commoner character and what some good options for their last name could be. First thing you want to ask yourself, is this person the first one to carry this name? Because if they are, it should refer directly to them.
Where’s he from? Ezio Auditore deFirenze of Assassin’s Creed fame breaks down as follows: Auditore, because they come from a family of bankers (auditors) and deFirenze which literally means “Of Florence” because that is where he is from. Judas Iscariot translates to “Judas from Carioth.” Location names are totally legitimate, particularly for characters who are travelling far from home.
Where does she live? And I don’t mean the town this time. I mean where is her house? If she lives under a tree that’s leaves turn deep yellow in the summer, her surname might well be something like “Goldenbough.” If she lives on the edge of town, she might be “Waller” or “Northside.” If she lives in a burrow under a hill, she might just straight up be “Underhill” or “Burrows.”
What does he look like? Tons of surnames come from hair color or complexion. “Greybeard,” “Russel,” “Brown,” “Fairling.” Her name could refer to other characteristics as well. If she’s tall, “Longstride” or “Heron.” If she’s short, well. Just plain “Short” is a last name. A character with strikingly blue eyes could be “Fairsky.” One with a lot of freckles could be “Suntouched.”
What’s his temperament? Does he have anything about him that would stand out as a defining trait that would get people using it to refer to him so other people know who they’re talking about? “Bold,” “Harsh,” “Sanguine.” Maybe “Green” for someone kind of gullible.
What does she do for a living? That one’s pretty easy. There are a ton of trade names like “Carpenter” or “Smith.” Just because they’re common doesn’t make them any less valid. Another route to take down this same road, by the way, is something the character did. For instance, Samantha Karr’s character in our Scarlet Sisterhood game is often called “Agnetha Armbreaker” for an incident in which she challenged a man to single combat and ended up breaking his arm in a humiliating public spectacle.
Titles and Sobriquets
Things that people call a character that is not their own name. If you watch or read Game of Thrones, you are definitely familiar with these. You know who “The Imp” is, just as well as any of the characters in the story. That’s a part of what makes it so fun, and while titles like that can make for some really strange surnames, they can still be fun to have.
These are the things your bards are going to have fun playing around with. And you have to admit there is something thrilling and dramatic about the double speak that comes with one character talking to another about a third and not wanting to use their name either because the nickname is more disrespectful or maybe because they’re even a little bit intimidated to use the real one.
After all, particularly in fantasy settings that are set in times more akin to the Middle Ages, names are often believed to have power. That’s part of the reason for nicknames and titles in the first place. Wizards, in particular, might go by a nickname to avoid rivals picking up their real one, or people might call them something else to avoid drawing their attention.
Dungeon Masters, this is mostly your domain. While a character who is constantly giving themselves titles can be amusing, most of the time it’s going to be played for laughs. When you do it, though, it’ll make your players feel special. It’s a gift you can give to them that costs you nothing.
And if you’re going to go there, think like a bard, because it’s probably someone really dramatic who wanted the story they were telling to sound better, and they came up with it in the first place.
There’s this old Nordic concept called a “kenning.” Basically what that is, is a roundabout poetic way to refer to a thing. A figure of speech, if you will. They might call a boat a “water steed” for example, and while it isn’t obvious what they’re talking about right away, and I don’t advise doing this with just any word, for characters it can be a great idea.
Spend some time thinking around the topic. You’re trying, for example, to come up with a title to give a cleric who raised someone from the dead. “Lifegiver” seems too bland to you, so you think about it a little harder. Dead things decompose. They attract crows. “The Crow’s Thief” sounds far more intimidating. Of course the implication is they stole a meal from some carrion eaters, but it isn’t about the literal meaning, it’s about the implication and the way it makes you feel to hear it.
Often these are going to be callbacks to a specific moment of awesome. Think about the really big-deal things this character has done. You might even be thinking about the events surrounding it. Say someone took part in a battle and single-handedly dispatched seven men. Say she did it at dusk along the backdrop of the setting sun and the people watching this saw man after man drop until only one silhouette remained. “Longshadow” would be an appropriate nickname to pick up from such a moment.
Another thing to consider is that often a bunch of stories about different people will get jumbled together under the same name. Robin Hood probably wasn’t just one person, he was probably a bunch of different people doing individual things, but storytellers love a recurring hero.
There’s a quest chain in Fallout 4 where you dress up as a radio character called “The Silver Shroud” and fight crime. I absolutely love that quest chain because you’re obviously not The Shroud, he doesn’t exist, but while you’re in that costume upholding the embodiment of what he stands for, you may as well be.
It might be interesting to see how a character responds to having their exploits attributed to some fictitious hero. It might be even more interesting to see what they do when other people start talking about something their character’s sobriquet did that they weren’t even a part of.
Whatever you want to do with it, if you feel like getting poetic (or dare I say it, bardic), kennings and titles can be a great way to do it. And it’s always worth a shot to stop and think about the places real world names actually come from in the first place, be you player or the one behind the screen.
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Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.