What’s in a (Historical Character) Name?

I’m continuing to answer the burning questions about writing as part of my 10th writing birthday celebration.

Previously, I answered a question from my good friend, Lydia.  But there was a second question that she put before me:

How do you come up with interesting character names in your work?

Words can barely express how much I love this question.  The reason for this is because it gives me the chance to discuss a writing topic that’s dear to my heart, but I don’t often see talked about elsewhere.

Naming characters when writing historical fiction.

Naming characters in itself is a fascinating topic because it’s such a fun and important part of character creation.

To name something is to give power to it, so choosing the right name for a character really helps bring them to life for a writer.

This in turn allows the writer to do the necessary work to bring the characters to life for the reader.

Articles on naming characters often suggest different places to find name suggestions.  Baby name books and websites, phone books, genealogy tables, movie credits, and people you interact with are often recommended for characters set in the real world.

For sci-fi or fantasy worlds, online name generators can be useful.  So too are real-world names that are given an alternate spelling, or those that combine random sounds that look and work well together.

When I used to write fantasy, with the exception of name generators (they didn’t exist yet) and movie credits, I used all of these methods for naming my characters.

Some characters even got their names from modified street names and from everyday words that for some reason (fate?) I mistyped frequently.

But now I write historical fiction, so both my naming sources and my character naming concerns have changed.

All in the family (name)

In a historical setting, not just any name will do.

Sometimes this causes writer frustration due to a lack of variety among the plausible options.

In early 13th century England, for example, some 75% of men bore one of the same 14 names.  Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, many didn’t have names at all per se, and instead were often named for their birth order (Tertius = third, Octavia = eighth).

However, in order to give historical fiction an air of authenticity, it’s important that a writer use names that were appropriate to both the time and the place where the story is set.

My WIP takes place in 13th century England, and I’ve had great success coming up with character first names by way of the following:

  • Online historical names databases, one of which actually rates a name’s popularity by century
  • Books devoted solely to the topic of historical names
  • Making use of the first names of real historical figures.

Coming up with last names, however, was a bigger challenge.  It’s the reason I was so excited to receive this question to answer.

Because I have suffered for my Art in this regard.  I put in a ton of work.  My book has about 65 named characters that required at least 20 fictional Anglo-Norman (i.e. of French descent) last names.

But I wanted these names to actually mean something in English translation, rather than just be a random collection of French-sounding syllables.

Not a meaning that was a veiled clue to the character’s personality (e.g. Cruella de Vil) because I actually can’t stand names like that in non-comedic fiction, especially when I’m able to recognize them.

Rather, in most cases, these translations would be something related to either geography/the physical description of a place, or a profession, since this is how so many historical Anglo-Norman surnames translate.

The fact that I speak a bit of French helped me considerably in this endeavour.  Still, there was only so many geographical French nouns I could come up with off the top of my head, e.g. mont, pont, eau, bois, roche.

I didn’t want every surname to be a literal compound comprising a French adjective and a French noun (e.g. Rougemont = red mountain), or at least not all such obvious compounds.  Some of them I wanted to show a bit of corruption—a French name that was slowly being degraded in its spelling and pronunciation on the way to becoming naturalized into English.

To do all this, the most useful tool I employed was a French dictionary.  Not a French-English dictionary (although I used one of those too), but an actual dictionary of French words in French for people who already speak the language.

I needed to increase my French vocabulary, which I did by literally reading the dictionary in search of nice-looking, nice-sounding words that I could convert into prefixes and suffixes and combine into something interesting.

This was definitely a brute force method of learning words.  The odds of any random one in the dictionary being geography-related was pretty slim indeed.

Slightly more elegant (yet essentially the same building blocks method of name creation) was when I found (i.e. had the thought occur to me to trying Googling) a resource on Norman typonymy, which revealed common place name elements and their meanings.

Finally, although I didn’t want to choose names that were random French-ish gibberish, I had no qualms using French-ish gibberish as a starting point—a base to which I could apply meaning by revising these words accordingly.

Enter Wordoid, an online “intelligent naming tool” that produces made-up words that “look nice and feel great”.  Its offerings can follow the rules of specified languages, can begin, end, or contain a specific word fragment, and can be of a set character length.

Google Translate, with its predictive text, as well as both my same French dictionary and my French-English one, helped me break these wordoids down into parts, shape these parts into real words, and then recombine the whole thing into a believable last name.

So too did Google Translate help with pronunciation, in both a native French accent and an anglicized one.  This way, when I become a bestseller (right; but still—maybe…) and discuss my characters on CBC and NPR, I’ll know exactly how to pronounce their invented family names.

How do you come up with character names?

(Image source #1 and #3 – J.G. Noelle; #2)

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a (Historical Character) Name?

  1. You do indeed suffer (enjoy) for your art. This shows some considerable dedication, but you already showed that by choosing to write historical fiction; if you become popular, you may get some of your characters into literature by name.

    I have used some of your techniques (though not in such lovely depth) because, embedded in Pride’s Children are several novels and several movies, and a couple are historical. And one is SF, which has the usual requirements for sounding plausible.

    Our family names include lots of Williams and, in Mexico, a whole host of Alicias and Carlos and Luis, with nicknames to distinguish us all. I would hate to be the genealogist sorting us all out, and there are also name changes and at least one gender change.

    I go by sound for the SF ones, but I also keep an extensive list of characters’ names, because I have as many named characters as you do. I check initials; had one whose initials were BS, and even though that was cute for a while (he’s a lawyer), and the opposing lawyer was SB, I cut that out and behaved myself. I changed a few second tier names to give each letter of the alphabet more participation, and watched for things my brain supplied which turned out to be too close to other names – the usual author job. I messed up one, and had to do some tap-dancing to fix it. Nobody noticed, but I knew, and that was bad – and it would only be a matter of time.

    It’ll be fun to see how many Williams you end up with.

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    • In the post, I quoted a source that claims 75% of men in early 13th century England had one of the same 14 names. This same source also claims that 1 in 7 men (14%) were named William. I currently have three Williams – one is a historical figure, one is already dead at the story’s outset, and the last one doesn’t appear until the second book. That’s only about 3-4% of my total characters. Of course, if I followed actual naming patterns of the time my readers (if I managed to get any at all) would not be impressed, even if I tried to give each William a distinguishing nickname.

      I keep lists of possible character names as well. I had an extensive one in my fantasy-writing days, and like you, most of the names were chosen for how they sounded. I have a modest list for my WIP and sequels, although I’ve pretty much strip-mined it at this point. I had to give a one-scene character a name the other day during revisions just to help make a dialogue flow better and I was thoroughly put out by it.

      In my first (incomplete, shelved) fantasy novel, I actually invented a conlang to come up with place names and to give them a sense of consistency. Again these names were constructed from words for geographical features.

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      • We manage casts of thousands, though many are spear carriers, fewer are minor characters, a certain smaller number are major characters, and I have three main characters whose points of view we live the story through.

        Giving a character a name who appears only a few times should lead you to make that character worth it in some way – use the pov character’s thoughts anchored to the newly-named character. You see how Andrew feels about other people when he thinks about the girl who serves the desserts:
        —–
        “I saved you pie.”
        The voice at his shoulder made him jump—he hadn’t expected ambush here, in the mess, where most people were now used to having him around and almost ostentatiously didn’t fuss. He raised his gaze. “Ye startled me. Penny, right?”
        “I saved it for you. The pecan pie goes fast, and I noticed you like it.” She set the plate alongside his tray. “Oh. I see. You already got some.” Disappointment tinged her voice.
        “What station do ye work, Penny?”
        “Desserts.” She pointed.
        “Tell ye what. Next time, I’ll get it from ye. Good?”
        Her face lit up. “Sure. That’d be fine. I’ll make sure we have some. Shall I—?” She reached for the plate.
        “Not so fast!” He laughed with her. “But ye can’t give me two any more—or they’ll be pouring me into the colonel’s breeches, ye understand? Wardrobe will have a—a conniption?”
        “Yes, sir!”
        He watched her walk away with a bounce to her step. Such a small thing. Beautiful American girl, skin the color of Dutch roast with real cream.
        “You made her day.” Kary’s voice brought him back to the table.
        —–
        whereas Bianca says:

        “She took a big chance.” Bianca’s jaw emphasized her tiny head shake. “Grant instructed the staff. I know I will.”
        Which is one reason ye might be an adequate director— attention to detail. “Ye crave recognition, but it flipflops from ‘no one cares’ to ‘leave me alone’ overnight.” He speared a bite from the second slice of pie. Too sweet? Right on the edge. “She seems normal.”
        “She’ll be crushed if you don’t accept pecan pie from her every meal for the remainder of the shoot.” Bianca punctuated her words with a sip from her straw.
        “What should fans do? Especially when they see bolder ones rewarded?” Kary broke off a tiny piece of pie, and closed her eyes and smiled beatifically. “Excellent pie!”
        “Not cross over the line.” He cracked his neck to each side, refrained from stretching himself at the dinner table. “Unfair, but safer.”
        “We have to be able to work.” Bianca pushed the glass away. “Fans are dangerous. Because they’re unpredictable.”

        I always try to make every element do at least triple duty in the story.

        In this case the element was a very minor character, Penny, the dessert girl.

        Liked by 1 person

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