What’s in a name? Shakespeare asked the question and we as fiction writers know the answer, the name is everything! Well maybe not everything, but critical, as names set the tone and define how readers view characters. Do we expect P. G. Wodehouse’s character Bertie Wooster to be an esteemed mathematician? Most assuredly, not.
As readers, we’ve all met characters that walked off the page. We’ve hid our secret crushes, daydreamed about meeting them for coffee, perhaps wondered what whispered confidences we would share, if only they were real. Their spirits lingers with us long after we close the book, and in rare instances, they almost become part of us. Some we pledged our loyalty to as cherished childhood friends, Gandalf, Dorothy, or Peter Pan. Others we added to our list later in life, Rhett Butler, Harry Potter or d’Artagnan.
I think all writers and readers can agree – great characters deserve great names.
Fictional historical names come with their own set of considerations.
The reader must believe those names could represent people living in your chosen time. Using authentic names is best, but what happens when history recorded no names? Or, only the names of a few key figures? Sometimes creating names, or pulling names from other geographic areas, or near eras in history, is your only means.
Regardless of how you find your names—choose wisely:
Make sure your name invokes the right emotions in your reader and conveys the correct gender. Unfortunately, genders of names change over time, mostly moving from masculine to the feminine. Your goal is to find names readers will respond to in the appropriate way. Do people want to read about a fair maiden throwing herself into the waiting arms of a handsome Methodius, or a brave Aethelred? These were two popular names in their time, but hardly appealing for an alpha male character. Think about the rhythm of the name and what words you associate with that name. Methodius, with it similarities to modern words like methodical, or melodious, might be a better name for a trusted mentor, a musician or even a pet.
Use family trees in heavily recorded eras:
Genealogists have constructed trees for many high-ranking members of every society and time and they are readily available. Nobles always favored reusing family names, and the lower classes followed their lead. If your character’s lower ranking family owes everything to the largess of the local Barron, of course they would want to name their children with a variant of the Barron’s first or last name. To adopt another house’s names is a way to curry favor, pledge loyalty, and/or to create the illusion of familial bonds.
Male names often dominate the historical records:
Even with gender against your characters, you can make a male name work for you. Simply use the same techniques people in the past have always used. Adapt male names by combining them with feminine parts. Think of a name like George, with it people produce Georgette, Georgiana, and or Georgina. Don’t be afraid to adapt last names, places, or even titles into names, remember when writing historical fiction for very early eras with few resources, sounding like a plausible name is your best goal.
Never forget the role of national or cultural identity in naming.
If you are writing about a country with a strong Catholic heritage, Saint’s names are going to dominate. Look for patron Saints that augment your storyline, there are Saints for almost every avocation. Look for the Saint with strong ties to your geographic location. They don’t need to be well known Saints, just from the right eras.
Check your name’s history:
Depending on how far back your target date is, you may want to select names that have fallen out of favor. If you have your heart set on an old name that is still in common use, you should at least favor the older or regional spelling of the name. This is one of those times going with a non-Anglicized version of a name could work in your favor. Readers want writers to sweep them into another time, and an unfamiliar name can help jump-start that feeling of entering another world.
Always look your names up in a few different places:
Find out any information about the original language of the name, any first use of the name in literature, the meaning of the name. You don’t want to give Germanic names to Spanish characters, at least not without a good reason. Nor should you use a name with a meaning that’s in opposition to the character’s nature you’ve created.
Take the time and do the legwork:
Great character names are worth the effort, and nothing sends a historical fiction purest into a frenzy faster then jarring modern names thrown into a beautifully constructed fictional landscape.
Let us hear you, what are your favorite names from history? Have you ever found the name first and written a character to go with it? Please share your stories of success and failure.
They say history is written by the victors, but so are place names. Once you have a cache of great characters each crowned with the perfect name, you’re going to need a place (or maybe a palace) for your people to live in.
Up Next from Robin… Misty Moors and Bloody Battlements: Historical Setting.