“N” is for “Names”: Deciding What to Call Your Characters

According to T. S. Eliot, “the naming of cats is a difficult matter.” The naming of fictional characters can be every bit as challenging, especially when you’re restricted to a certain time, place, and culture.

In modern/contemporary romance, you have pretty much a free hand to name your characters whatever you want. After all, this is a world in which Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa are actual people. And I’ve read romances featuring heroines with names like Rainbow or Moonflower, completely without irony on the author’s part. (And usually, it is the heroine, rather than the hero, who ends up saddled with the outlandish moniker.)

1309021Historical writers have somewhat fewer options–especially if they want to sound reasonably authentic. An anachronistic name–like Heather, Brittany, Amber, or Skye–can pull a reader right out of your Regency- or Victorian-set romance. Personally, I did a double take when Georgette Heyer inflicted bratty ingenue Tiffany Wield on us in The Nonesuch, even though she explained that Tiffany was actually a diminutive for the more historically accurate Theophania. And the further back in time that you set your novel, the more careful you have to be about names.

So, what are some resources to ensure a period-appropriate name? Well, Biblical and saints’ names are fairly safe unless you’re setting your story in the pre-Christian age. You can find John, Mary, and all their variants throughout history. Names from Classical history and myth were also popular, especially from the Neo-Classical period onward. The Georgian and Regency periods boasted plenty of Julias, Dianas, and Sophias, along with their Janes, Marys, and Elizas. And if you’re a stickler for historical authenticity, you can check population censuses for your chosen time period and setting and see for yourself which names recur most frequently. This is also a good way to generate a list of surnames, which I find particularly useful!

Statue of Llewelyn the Great
Statue of Llewelyn the Great

For a more fanciful touch, you can turn to popular literature. Rosalind, Viola, and Miranda from Shakespeare. Lancelot, Tristan, Guinevere, and Isolde from Arthurian legend.  Deanna Raybourn’s eccentric March family in her Lady Julia mysteries all have Shakespearean first names. And several members of Mary Balogh’s Bedwyn clan have names derived from the old romances their mother apparently loved.

I myself often turn to poetry, music, and history itself for inspiration.  The heroine of my first book, Waltz with a Stranger, is named Aurelia–a popular 19th century name with classical connotations. But it was the Civil War era love song “Aura Lea” that first recalled that name to me. And one of my WsIP features a Welsh hero named Llewelyn, after Llewelyn the Great, Prince of North Wales. (By the way, Llewelyn was a highly popular Welsh boys’ name during the Victorian era, along with Arthur, Evan, Huw, and Rhys.)

Angharad Rees as Demelza in the Poldark miniseries
Angharad Rees as Demelza in the Poldark miniseries

Sometimes the most mundane objects can provide unexpected inspiration when it comes to names. Winston Graham, author of the Poldark Saga, once wrote about finding the perfect name for his heroine on a country signpost, deep in the heart of Cornwall: Demelza. And from that moment, Graham asserts, the image of his heroine became crystal-clear in his mind, and remained so throughout his many years of writing her. Following Graham’s example, I scrutinized several local street signs and found a handful that served quite well as historical surnames–Barrington, Tiverton, and Ashby–even if none has yielded as indelible a character as Graham’s Demelza Carne Poldark.

What are some of the unusual names you’ve encountered as a reader or dreamed up as a writer?

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