Naming Names

In spare moments, I’ve been trying to decide on a name for a character I want to write about in the future.  Some authors need to get the title right before they can start writing. I need to get the central characters’ names right; for me, it’s an essential part of the process of establishing and developing their personalities.

Choosing names is harder when writing fiction set in the past. Names must suit the character, but also be appropriate for the period. One cannot have a historical heroine called Kayleigh, Scarlett or Paige – or not if one wants to be convincing.

There was a much more limited set of Christian names in use in England in the past.  One might want to get away from Ann, Mary and Elizabeth, and John, Thomas and William, but what to use instead? Biblical names will usually be authentic, but Absolom, Ezekiel or Hosea might not be suitable names for romantic or action heroes.

Surnames need to be appropriate, too. People did move about in the past, but one would probably not give a name such as Ackroyd or Entwistle to a character living in rural Kent or Sussex, or Trelawney to a character in the north-east of England, unless there was a good plot related reason for it.

Place names can make good surnames. There are websites which have large scale maps, showing villages, hamlets and farmsteads, which might suggest suitable surnames.

Historic tax records are also available, offering lists of names of people in the past. One might not choose to name a character Shatwater or Hogsflesh, but some real people had names equal to anything Dickens might have invented. What kind of character is suggested by the name Prosper Gidney? Or Whittingham Fogg, or Ottawell Shrubsole?

 

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