Historical Naming

Interesting question today: “When writing historical fiction, do you have a hard time coming up with names? Is there a list of when particular personal names were first used? I have written some fiction that is historical and I’m worried the use of a name or names that were unknown in that period might put some people off because of the inaccuracy.

I have written before about how names can be astoundingly important to how both authors and readers respond to characters in stories. It makes complete sense that having a “Neveah” and “McKenzie” wandering around Elizabethan England would be a problem.

Luckily writers have a few resources for looking for “historically accurate” names:

1. BehindtheName.com: One of my favorite sites for finding names in general, behindthename.com (and its sister site surnames.behindthename.com) is a great resource when trying to find appropriate names for historical characters. With popularity lists reaching back to 1880 (with John and Mary topping the charts), you can very easily find names that would suit a story based in the Victorian era forward (it even lists just how popular the names were at the time: 8.15% of boys born were named John and 7.24% of girls named Mary, for example).



For earlier names, you have to do a little more digging, but by looking up specific names you can find out about the history of a name, including first origin, famous bearers, and popularity charts (see above). For example, for ‘Mary’ you’ll find:

In England [Mary] has been used since the 12th century, and it has been among the most common feminine names since the 16th century.

For a name like ‘Jessica’, however, you’ll find:

This name was first used in this form by Shakespeare in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (1596), where it belongs to the daughter of Shylock … It was not commonly used as a given name until the middle of the 20th century.

So where you would be more than safe naming a character “Mary” in the middle of the War of the Roses, “Jessica” is probably better suited for a character born in the 1980s or 1990s (#1 or #2 for most popular name from 1981 – 1997).

2. Historical Figures: If you are writing historical fiction you have most likely (hopefully) done some research into the time period. While doing that sort of reading, you have likely come across people who were important to the time period. For example, following the Elizabethan/Tudor example, you might see Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Edward VI, Katherine Parr, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, William Shakespeare, Thomas Moore, Walter Raleigh…and the list goes on and on and on. It is therefore reasonable to assume that you are “time period appropriate” using any of those given names in the time period.

Edward VI--meaning there had already been six other kings with his name by the 1500s.

Edward VI–meaning there had already been five other kings with his name by the 1500s.

If you are interested in genealogy/have done any family research, it is also possible to use your own family tree for inspiration. If you have an ancestor named “Samuel” who fought in the Civil War, you’re likely safe making your 1860’s character’s name ‘Samuel’.

3. Historical Records: Assuming you are writing about a time period that includes a written language/has some “primary source” documents surviving, you are likely to be able to find names off censuses/tax rolls/etc. The more “modern” the time period, the simpler it will be to find these sorts of records (for example, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 1940 Census records in 2012 for interested parties), but it is possible to find things like the 1319 London Subsidy Roll online which will provide you with names such as Johannes (“John”) and Thomas which were both highly popular in London at the time.

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

(Note: Sources I have easily found online do tend to be highly euro-centric, but as long as you are writing about a “record-keeping” society you should be able to find something [i.e. it will be easier to find records from England or China than it will from nomadic groups]).

4. Figure out naming conventions: This is another one your previous research will aid in, but if you are looking for names on Behind the Name (or another similar site) this should help point you in the right direction. It’s just about following trends. For example, naming oneself after royalty/the ruling class has always been popular, thus you will find more children born after the Norman Conquest with French-based names (from watching how many King Henrys and Charleses there are in both England and France early on, you can see the name bleed-over). Similarly, Puritans were big fans of “virtue” names (Charity, Mercy, Remembrance…) by picking a virtue name for your fictional character on the Mayflower, your name will fit in without “copying” a famous name.

(Note: It is also important to pay attention to naming conventions when it comes to things such as surnames and name order. Would your characters have patronymic names (Greta Hansdatter, James FitzJames, Phillip son of Coul) a geographic indicator (Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci), their family name first (as it common in many Asian countries), or no second name at all? Those details help with the authenticity of your characters).

As with everything else in historical fiction, research is your friend. As long as you know the time period you’re using, you shouldn’t have a problem coming up with names.


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Who are you, again?

To many writers, myself included, names are partially what make a character. I’ve touched on how a new name can completely change a character, but even after an author has found the perfect name for a character, there comes another problem: introducing the character to the reader.

Recently in the NaNoWriMo Forums, a writer asked for advice on, “how to appropriately introduce new characters and offer their names.” The poster acknowledged that there seem to be two ways to introduce names to the reader. 1) Using the character’s name whether or not it has been used before or 2) wait until the names come up in dialogue.

So which should be used? Honestly, a little of both.

Introducing characters is one of those moments when you really have to nail down who your POV character is. With first person and third person limited being the most popular POVs by far these days, writers will most likely be writing with one character relating the story/a scene (either as “I” or “s/he”) It is possible to change POVs between scenes, especially in third person, but each scene should follow one character (otherwise it becomes head jumping). Once you know who the POV character in a scene, it becomes simpler to know when to share names.

1) If the POV character knows another character’s name, use it. Since you are in the POV character’s head, there is no reason to wait for someone to say another character’s name if the POV character knows it. Would you really call your friend “the tall man” or “the blond man” when you know his name is “Tim”? It is forcing in awkwardness where it needn’t be. (Note: The same goes for using nicknames. If POV character calls someone “Tim” in their head, there’s no reason to use “Timothy” in the narrative. Just be consistent [you shouldn’t flip between Tim and Timothy in narrative if you start with one]).

2) If the POV character doesn’t know another character’s name, wait for it to come up. Hopefully, this won’t be a long wait, but it would be a POV slip to say a name when your character would have no way of knowing it. Luckily, people tend to introduce themselves pretty early on when they aren’t known to someone. Stalling some with “the blonde girl”, “the young girl” or “the happy girl” shouldn’t be a problem. As soon as the character is introduced or the POV character gets a name, you can switch to using the new character’s name (e.g. another character in the scene calls “the blonde girl” Sally. It is fine to use Sally from that moment on because the POV character now has a name).

The biggest thing is you simply don’t want to confuse your readers. The sooner you can introduce a name and use it consistently the better.

Finally, if you are using omniscient POV, you should use the names for your characters as soon as they are introduced, unless there is a specific reason not to. As your narrator is omniscient they know all of the character names to begin with. By withholding a name, you are saying there is something important about it. Suddenly using it without any sort of reveal comes off as odd/anticlimactic.


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What’s in a Name?

Today’s blog post comes from us courtesy of Roxanne St. Claire (@roxannestclaire), a fellow Twitterling (I’m not sure if that’s something we call people on Twitter, but I like the term, and thus it is what I call people on Twitter all the same.

In under 140 characters Roxanne wrote:

Sometimes just changing a character’s name changes everything. Just did that and heroine feels so much more “right” now.”

Right away, at least for me, that made complete sense. There are some writers out there who can write an entire story with their characters being X and Y before filling in the names. I, personally, can’t. A name means a lot to my characters. Often times, a story idea comes from the name, rather than fitting the name into a completed story. I don’t know, maybe that comes from my not much caring for outlines, but all the same.

Take, for example, Willow. One of the main characters in my novel Grey Areas. To me, she has always been Willow. I’m not quite sure where the name came from at the time (perhaps it’s just that I like plant names. Thinking about it, the Main Character in The Bleeding Crowd is Dahlia…) but from the moment I started writing, she was Willow. From that name, an entire back story came out that her parents had been hippies. Hence the plant names. (And the fact that her middle name became Belladonna). For The Bleeding Crowd, the names are even more set. Dahlia comes from a mother who loves plant names. The twins are Audrey and Zoe (A and Z for the two ends of the alphabet). All the men have biblical names (Benjamin, Jude, Abraham…)

But, ok, those all have plot reasons behind them. It would be a little odd to have all characters in X group have names that start with one letter and stray from that. In those cases, of course names matter. But what about just any old character? Does it really matter if a character is named Jill or Jane?

Of course, to quote Shakespeare, “That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet (II, ii)). Would it really have mattered to the story if Romeo had been named Sam? Or Bill?

Perhaps not. If you wrote the characters exactly the same, perhaps it wouldn’t matter if the play were “Bill and Juliet” but then, the name Bill just brings up a different connotation there, doesn’t it? The 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure just wouldn’t have sounds the same if it had been “William and Theodore’s Excellent Adventure” now would it?

To quote the great philosophers, the writers of The Simpsons:

Lisa – “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”
Bart – “Not if they were called ‘Stink Blossoms’.”

Perhaps a rose would still smell like a rose even if it were called something else. But what would someone’s first reaction be if you were trying to give them a Stink Blossom for Valentine’s Day? I doubt many people would want to even try smelling something that says it stinks in the name. And for those who did, you can’t discount the idea of the mind playing tricks. Something along the lines of the placebo effect. You tell someone something’s going to smell bad, less likely they’re going to accept that it smells good.

Personally, I think the same thing happens to a lot of writers. There’s a picture in our heads associated with names. Take Agnes for example. What’s the first thing you picture? Unless you know someone else named Agnes, it’s probably an older woman. Now Laquisha, or Vinnie. There are some names that are just associated with stereotypes – either because they are most common in one group than another, it’s a name used a lot in media referring to one type of person, or because they have been used as a negative “catch-all” for a group of people (such as someone insultingly referring to a hispanic man as ‘Jose’). There’s such a strong mental connection to some names that it doesn’t only affect how a reader sees the character, but it starts morphing even us writers’ ideas about our characters.

And, so were’ back to Roxanne’s point, “Changing a character’s name changes everything.” It’s probably why it can take so long to find a perfect name for one character, and why you couldn’t change another’s name no matter how much a publisher or agent pushes you to. It’s just the character’s name. It’s how you see them. It’s who they grow to be.

And so, a rose might still smell like a rose, but it wouldn’t be what we expect it to be. And that changes everything.

(If you’re struggling to name someone or something in your story, naming sites around the web can help you find something that seems to “fit.” I made a handy list of a small fraction of these sites available here to help point anyone looking in the right direction.)


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The Name Game

While working on a separate post for tomorrow, I came to the realization that a number of questions my fellow WriMos ask when looking for plot help in the NaNoWriMo forums have to do with naming, be it a character, tavern, city, or anything else.

I completely understand that. Names are important. They set a tone, and I know I personally can’t develop a character until I have a name for them (I’m just not able to write “X said to Y” like some people can while looking for names, it seems).

Luckily for us writers, the internet abounds with resources to find names (Lucky for my readers, too, or all my minor characters would have the first name that came to mind–which oddly enough tends to be Kyle.) So, in the interest of consolidating all those helpful sites I use when looking for/making up names…


Character Names:

behindthename.com: Personally, I consider this site a bit like the Holy Grail of naming resources. Not only do they have an amazingly long list of names (each with a full explanation of the history behind it) but you can sort them by country,  see what names were the most popular in the year your character was born, or even search by meaning. They have also recently started surnames.behindthename.com, which has last names. The list isn’t quite as extensive as the original behindthename site so far, but it’s still a great source.

thinkbabynames.com: Though I am partial to behindthename, thinkbabynames.com is also a good source for first names, including the rarer names behindthename doesn’t have listed. For example where “Me’Shell” might only get you this list of similarly spelled names on behindthename, it’s featured today on thinkbabynames, which will tell you it is a variant of Michelle.

babynamewizard.com: Another useful baby name site. Perhaps most useful is it’s front page “Find a Name” feature, which lets you search for a name based of certain criteria such as “Must start with __” or “Can’t start with __” If you really want an uncommon but traditional sounding name for a character that doesn’t start with B, but ends with an A, this is your site.

census.gov: If you’re looking for relatively common last names (for US-based) characters, this list provides, by percentage, the top ranked last name down to 88799th place. (Sorry Johnson, Smith has replaced you as most popular once again.)

wikipedia.org: Yes, it had to pop up eventually, and now that it isn’t blacked out it’s really quite useful when naming characters, especially (I find) this list of common surnames. You can pick which country your character comes from, and pick one that is currently common in the region.

Place Names:

wikipedia.org: Once again, and top ranking this time. Most of the place names I use actually come from wikipedia. Whether I’m stealing a common town/city name for a middle-of-nowhere US town, finding something French sounding, or making up my own town using generic forms of British/Irish place names, wikipedia is a great site. For example, my made up town of Ardbost? Comes from the generic list on wikipedia (Ard: Height, Bost: Farm. Named for the hill the town was first built on).

Serendipity Place Name Generator: A great place to get random suggestions for made up place names. I generally set it to generate 50 at a time (the most it will) and then pick one/come up with some combination of a few when one strikes my fancy. They also have Fantasy Place Name Generator

Chaotic Shiny Place Name Generator: Another fun place name generator. Also will put in real landmark names so you get fun creations such as “Taelus Glade” and “Dugfresh Pond”

Finally, since I have to give in to my NaNoWriMo Fangirl-ness, I can’t for get the NaNoWriMo Adoption Society. This forum is where any WriMo who can’t use a name, plot, title or anything else they think up is free to leave it for the needy. With how many things are there, if you don’t find a place name, or character name, or anything else you want to use, you’ll at least probably have some idea sparked while going through them all.