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)