Secondary worlds, gender selection, and names


Name and gender are probably the two most important customization options for player characters in games, at least for me. Customizing names is part of what lets me comfortably replay games, and make totally different choices.

I prefer a game that lets me choose a custom name, but I like it best if the game can also offer me a few “out of the box” name suggestions. Sometimes I have an exact idea of what I want to name an MC, and other times I don’t really feel like opening up a name randomizer to come up with something good. So I like having 2-3 “default” names to choose from. For settings that are modern or historical that’s relatively simple, there are lots of resources for writers looking for names from particular cultures, nations or time periods.

Fantasy and science fiction is a little more complex. The farther out you depart from a setting that’s grounded in reality, the more power you as a writer have over using the names you suggest as a form of worldbuilding. Especially if your MC is someone to whom a name is an important status symbol or social identifier, and fantasy especially is all about those things.

Now here’s the actual question: name and gender selection will often appear close together, either at the very beginning or the very end of character creation. In an SFF game, you can use this trick to give the idea of gender-based naming conventions – such as, whether they even exist. In my current ChoiceScript WIP, I went ahead and just gave three made-up name suggestions, without gating them by MC gender. Coming up with several suggestions for either male or female (or nonbinary, if you go that route) is only a little extra work, though, assuming you do want that level of convention.

What about other characters? Occasionally, the player can select (directly or indirectly) the gender of a few of the NPCs. Should each of these characters have a male and female (and potentially nonbinary) version of their name? Should they be cognates of the same name (like Agustin/Agustina in Choice of Romance, the first COG game I played), or just two totally separate names? Not all languages have these conveniently convertible gendered names (although most romance languages do, I think). If the name is dissimilar, does it start to feel like a different character?


I definitely agree that there should be some premade options for name suggestion. If these names can add flavor to the text, that’s really nice. It could also be cool if the author uses an *if statement for different premade names later in the story, reminding the player that their name selection matters. A disadvantage with this is that it demands a bit of work, and not all players are going to select one of the premade names.

I think that there should be different name options for different genders unless you can come up with very good gender neutral names. If I’m playing a woman, suggestions like John, Michael or James won’t be of any use.
I’m not a big fan of selecting the gender of NPCs, but if a character has two very different names depending on their gender, that will make them quite different. I’d go for two similar names or a gender-neutral name.


It might be easiest if you found names that could go for either, but I don’t think there would be a problem if you found a name for an NPC that you like and had a different one for the other gender version. I would suggest probably keeping the starting letter the same. So if you have a male NPC named David, you would have the female version as something like Diana. I think that will help you keep it straight about who is who in your mind. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting them mixed up.


That’s why I specified fantasy and science fiction.


I like the way that Hollywood Visionary does it - you get separate lists of “traditionally masculine”, “traditionally feminine” and “traditionally neutral” names, with seven to ten options for each. You can choose a name from any of the lists regardless of the PC’s gender. I liked doing this for my game Blood Money, where a lot of the feminine names don’t have “a” at the end, but some of the masculine ones do.

For the question of gender-flipping characters, I would tend to go for similar sounding names for the characters, just for ease of writing, or names with a similar theme or feel. There’s also using surnames, or having a gender neutral name (eg Haze in Tally Ho), which I’ve been experimenting with. But there’s no hard and fast rule - in Heart of the House you have Bastian/Sophia who is the gender-flippable character, which works fine.


I like that last bit a lot. Actually, male name that end in “a” are quite common, really, but I do find that it’s a neat shorthand for reminding readers that they’re “not in Kansas anymore” as it were. And, well, real names fluctuate a lot between male and female. Lots of names that used to be exclusively male, or exclusively surnames, are now pretty common female names. That’s why sites like magic baby names give those oh so helpful percentage scores.

But why assume that there should be male and female names at all? The point of fantasy is that you’re not in the real world, you’re the author, you’re in control. You can decide that names have no particular gender-related baggage. When you look at names like “Nolix” and “Eldis” (to use examples from my WIP) who’s to say whether they’re feminine or masculine, or both or neither?


Absolutely - that’s a fun way of doing it too. Now I’m thinking of the possibilities of choosing from sample “traditionally aristocratic names” or “typical spacefarers’ names”, etc etc… It’s a nice opportunity to say something about the world that’s being presented.


I completely failed to follow my own advice about completing one game before starting another (sigh) and recently began writing a sci-fi CS story/game in which the player can choose to play as one of three main characters. They choose the gender, name, etc. of their character as the story progresses and the game randomly sets the genders, orientations and relationships of the other playable and main characters. The player isn’t told any of this, they just discover the details when interacting with the other characters. That’s the plan anyway…

Doing that forces me to write in a way that takes account of gender and orientation preferences because I have no idea exactly how any of the characters are going to turn out. Should be interesting writing it, if nothing else lol


The Lost Heir games did gender-selection of npcs well. They had the male/female versions of each. They had personalities, but it was a quest-focused game, and the socializing wasn’t so deep that there was a lot of need for “gendered” interactions.

Is your focus on easier coding/writing or open-mindedness? I think we still associate gender with plenty of fantasy names. -on’s and -orn’s still feel very masculine, while -a’s and -ia’s are usually feminine. World-building fantasy or scifi can be tricky being immersive the more non- traditional you make them. That may be your goal, cool. Some online story I read a long time ago had an alien race with like 5 genders. I found it more strenuous to keep up with keeping track of that and characterizing the individuals that it became more of an academic study than a narrative. The effort to be non-binary was defiantly immersion-breaking in that case.

I’d say it’s a great initiative to be nonbinary-inclusive. But I don’t often see it being handled really gracefully. I think we’re still a bit in the era of treating non-binary/ambiguous characters like the early days of gays on tv.