Apologies for a wee blip on the blog, and a late posting of a Wench Classic Blog!
I'm in the midst of naming some new characters. It's a delicate and significant matter, this business of choosing character names. I can spend hours–-even days-–poring over name books looking for just the right name for a character — the perfect name to reflect and evoke a character who, sometimes, I don't fully understand yet, as that part comes with time.
Whether it's a main character name, a secondary, or a throwaway name for someone who walks quickly on and offstage, names have the power to impact and influence not only a character but a story. The name choices are endless for fiction, given time and place … but sometimes the characters are based on actual historical people and the names are therefore decided. Then the author may have to make the best of it.
Names can help establish a story's authenticity and time period, or it can undermine the story and disrupt the flow of things. The historical and social context of any name needs to be considered. Some names will sound very modern to our ear despite their historical pedigree — while others are just plain unpleasant, or hard to pronounce, or have some context that evokes frumpy or dowdy, sly or weak, and so on. And a name's modern connotation can be just as important as its historical context.
I have a big library of name books, the pages well-thumbed and underlined. When I named my kids, I had a few favorite books, and I still use those — and now the name book reference library in my office has expanded with books of historical names and surnames, and books that provide census lists and historical contexts, and a few that consider the social, numerological, and even kabbalistic context of names. And there are online name sites as well.
Historical context is just one factor. Authors also take into account the name's authenticity, its sound (even when read silently, the sound and rhythm in a name or series of names is important), its spelling, pronunciation, how many other characters' names begin with the same letter or a similar sound, and so on. For example, if a writer is flying through a story and needs a name quickly for a servant or some very minor character who pops in and right back out again, it's easy to pick up a name list, choose a name, and go back to the writing. The pitfall of the spontaneous method is that minor names (and some major ones) might all come from the beginning of the alphabet!
Authenticity is a biggie. Character names should fit the story, the setting, and the historical era. Many good name books will give the origin and history of a name, along with notes on common and popular names. Withycombe's The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names is one of the best for this sort of information.
But a name can be perfectly accurate and yet seem all wrong for the modern reader's ear. My favorite example of this is the name "Tiffany" — if a medieval heroine was named this, it might seem anachronistic. And yet "Tiffany" was used in the medieval era, originating from Theophania, or Epiphany. It's one of several names drawn from religious holidays, a popular naming custom–we still see people named Christmas, Noel, and so on. But try getting a medieval "Tiffany" past an editor!
I named the medieval heroine of Lady Miracle "Michaelmas"–the feast of the Archangel Michael in September was her birthday. She first appeared as a secondary character, the young sister of the hero, Gavin Faulkner, in The Angel Knight–both had a natural healing ability. Readers loved the character (who was a child in Angel Knight) and many people asked for her story, although I had not planned it, and my editor thought it a good idea, too. So when it came time for her book–she grew up to become a 14th-century physician–I called her "Michael," which was a good compromise, I thought, since the use of masculine names for females was very prevalent in the medieval era.
While Publishers Weekly gave Lady Miracle a starred review (and that review is still framed on my wall!), and the reviews were wonderful, I remember one reviewer who bashed the book because, as she said, the heroine had a guy's name.
But as the author, I loved Michaelmas, both the character and her unique name. Looking back, I would have chosen the same name again, as it suited the book.
Besides accuracy and authenticity, there's the sound of a name, the spelling, the pronunciation. Can I live with typing that name ten thousand times? In one book, I had named a character Ned — and a few chapters into the book, changed it to something else. Writing "Ned said" was driving me mad. And while I love the name James and have used it twice (in fact, the hero of my current WIP is called James), the possessive, James's, is awkward.
I've sometimes changed the name of a hero or heroine in the middle of drafting the book. The character doesn't click for me unless the name works for that personality. Sometimes the name is right there from the beginning, full-blown, and other times, it takes an effort of constantly searching and changing. For example, I once called a hero Geordie–but it didn't work for him. Geordie was a little brother, not a hero. When I renamed him Duncan, he came to life. The heroine of another of my books was Kirsty in the proposal, yet she just wouldn't walk, talk, or make sense until I discovered that she was, in fact, Elspeth.
Can the reader pronounce the name? That's another consideration. I often work with Gaelic and Celtic names, and they are the very de'il to pronounce. I sometimes provide the pronunciation in the narrative by having another character learn to say it, or through some interior phonetic dialogue. Most of the time when I use a Gaelic name, I try to go for the ones that are obvious–like Bethoc, Morag, Niall, and leave Siobhan or Eibhlin, lovely as they are when said out loud (basically, Chevonne and Evleen), aside.
When a character is a historical person with a tricky name–that needs to be handled delicately where possible. In my last manuscript (which will be out next year, more on that later when I have more info!), I had to work my way around Gruoch, Lulach, and Gillecomghainn–all I could do was try to simplify the names as much as possible and pray that the reader would go with it.
Sometimes the historical names for a time period are a bit boring and very repetitive — men typically named Charles, William, Thomas, Robert, or women named Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, and so on–and it's great, then, to have an interesting title and property name to attach to them and use instead!
What's your favorite character name in a novel? Do you have a pet peeve with names? And can you share some of the names of the characters in a book you're reading now?