Friday, May 7, 2010

Nominatives

There may be a few people out there who felt that, since my first few cliche posts were negative, that I intended to rant about all of them.  So it might have been odd that the last couple weren't especially vitriolic - I may have disappointed some. 

As it happens, my acidic responses are not something I have on tap.  I have to actually despise something before I can rail against it.  I know, I know - if that's the case, what am I doing on the internet?  Sometimes I'm not sure.  Just waiting for a streetcar, I guess.

That said, we'll move forward.  This is the first multiple cliche I've tackled - because they are connected:

"Some Call Me ... Tim?:"  Good guys will only have first names, and bad guys will only have last names.  Any bad guy who has a first name will become a good guy at some point in the game.  Good guys' last names may be mentioned in the manual, but they will never be referred to in the story.

"Nominal Rule:"  Any character who actually has a name is important in some way and must be sought out.  However, if you are referred to as a part of a possessive noun ("Crono's Mom") then you are superfluous.

Naming is often a novelist's pet subject, and has been ever since Dickens taught us we could name characters Honeythunder and Skimpole - the conception that a character's names could mean something significant to what the character was.  I have named survivor characters "Seth" (Adam's 3rd son), unlucky characters "Murphy" and heartless murderers "Kelt" (invaders from the north, remember?), only to have readers scratch their heads and miss the point.  For the most part, I might as well have named them Bob and Rick ... but I keep trying, since it's more fun for me.  These days, you still have to incorporate names as unsubtle as Dickens for them to be noticed, but with a modern flavour, like calling a gay pimp "Dick Joint."  But I digress, and I haven't even started yet.

The two cliches above can be explained easily.  Last names are colder and have less emotional attachment than first names.  Coming up with meaningful names for people is hard.

A lot of the time, we never do find out a person's name ... particularly if that person is just scenery for us.  We chat with the girl in the coffee shop every day before work, but it can be months before there's a convenient moment to find out their name - which we then forget promptly as it isn't that important (unless we plan to date her, right?)  We don't care about the names of bus drivers, the asshole driving the sportscar that just cut us off, the kid in the ticket booth or the poor slob emptying the garbage outside the bathroom at the sports arena.  When the usher tells you to get your feet off the seat in front of you at the movie theatre, you don't ask for their name, do you?

If you do, you have serious confrontation issues.

So it is convenient enough to make some grunting statement about the guard telling you to move it along or the tax man clipping you for two gold for that shiny mithril helmet you must wear every place and won't leave in your room at the Inn.  If I gave you a name, you wouldn't remember it, and I wouldn't remember it.  I have better things to do as DM than to make endless notes about what the tax man's name is until - yes, he's relevant.

Deciding who is relevant can be a tremendous hassle.  Fact is, for every forty names that I give a party, there is perhaps one that gets remembered - and still usually with a dialogue like, "Who's Gracco?"  "You know, the guy who ran that Inn in the town outside Brawnick."  This is usually how it goes, off-line particularly, since my online players can look shit up.  I've given the city as Brunswick, not 'Brawnick,' the town was Wolfenbuttel and the Inn was named the Red Roan.  But who remembers?

Give the party a hireling, tell the party to name the hireling and they will remember the hireling's name.  But tell the party the hireling's name and they'll be saying for three sessions, "Rudert?  Rugert?  Which is it?" - when the fellow's name is Goethe.

The whole first name/last name thing breaks down a little, since the more bad ass we want the good guy to be, the more likely you remember him by his last name ... particularly if the guy's name gets shouted at lot by his partner or by the bad guys.  McLean was the Die Hard, Riggs was the Lethal Weapon, Porter went after the Payback and both Angel and Butterman are the Hot Fuzz.  It has ever been such: we remember all badass historical figures by the last name: Patton, Lee, Rommel, Wellington, Wallace, Custer (not as much a badass as he thought he was) and so on.  American Presidents get both names, but the last is still more important.  Kings get a first name, which is why it's 'Napoleon' and not 'Bonaparte.'  King Louis XIV, Philip II and Queen Elizabeth had last names, but they don't get mentioned unless the whole line is being discussed.  When you're really big, people think that your title is your last name; Genghis Khan, or Augustus.  And finally, the Gods get to use their only name, always.

So unless it is a king or a god, the tougher and nastier I want the NPC to be, the more likely I am to give them a last name.  Makes them more distant, more obscure.  I have a paladin named Eberhardt Hornung, I'm going to call him by his last name.  But I want his girlfriend to be softer, warmer, more emotionally attached - so she gets called Serafina.  If I want a sort of pleasant, clerical fellow to be met along the way, he gets named Jan.  If its a brother and sister pair of murderers and con-artists, they get to be known as Herieux.  And so on.

So it isn't so much protagonist vs. antagonist.  More like threatening vs. non-threatening.  When I was young I used to dream of the day when I would grow up and be called Mr. Such-and-such, like I had to call everyone older than 18 when I was just a kid.  But by the time I got old enough to be called that, my culture got all soft and sympathetic, deciding that Mr. This or Ms. That was just too threatening for everyday contact ... and so we are all reduced to the general arrangement first established in kindergarten.  Makes me bitter whenever I think about it.

I like being known by my last name.  Makes me feel badass.  Yeah.  Don't fuck with --.  He'll hurt you.

1 comment:

Johnni said...

Haha especially for me. My last name is Kok.