History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 July 2010

Names: The Good, the Bad, the Confusing (?)

I’m curious what readers have to say about character names. Me, I like the memorable ones. Jo Beverley’s Mallorens (Cynric, Arcenbryght, Elfled) and Mary Balogh’s Bedwyn’s (Freyja, Wulfric, Rannulf) are prime favorites. There’s something that appeals to me about digging down into history and pulling forth names that have been forgotten, overlooked, and left to molder. I think it’s nice to be able to play off of this with more common names (especially if the names either show you something about the character or let you play wildly against type).

I’ve got a whole set-up in my new series (tip of the hat to the aforementioned historical romance goddesses) where the parents are both history buffs, which the mother having a penchant for Scottish history and the father being a classics scholar. All of their children have one name from the royalty of ancient Scotland and one from the pages of the classics. It was great fun to come up with them (the hero of my upcoming book Ripe for Pleasure, for example, is Leonidas Roibert Vaughn).

So I’m curious, does it bother you when you don’t know how to pronounce a character’s name, or when the name is unusual, or do you—like me—think it’s a wonderful addition to the genre?

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Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

I like unusual names as long as they fit in with the naming culture of the time. Leonidas, for example, makes perfect sense in a world that produced a Hercules Pakenham (probably my favorite real person name of the Georgian/Regency period for the sheer goofiness of it). Anything in Shakespeare or the Bible is fair game too, though if you're going to write a Romeo or a Hezekiah, you need to show me why the family went that route instead of, say, the equally Shakespearean Henry or the equally biblical James.

So far I've given most of my characters relatively ordinary names, though doing my best to avoid the problem I run into in reading histories and biographies where you're having trouble keeping all the Henrys, Georges, Johns, and Arthurs straight.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Some of the real names just can't be beat (Hercules Pakenham is a great example). I've got a whole slew of servants that all have Biblical names (ex-slaves who came over after fighting for the British during the American War of Independence; that little bit of history being a favorite of mine which I’ve never seen used in a book).

10:42 AM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

I am so excited that you have a New! Series!

I like weird names in fiction.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, Victoria. I am too. I'm having a really wonderful time with it. It's starting to feel *real* now that I'm deep into the second book and starting to plan for the promotin of the first Ripe for Pleasure.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

As I write I always imagine what my books sound like if they were being read aloud, and I view books I approach as a reader the same way. If I trip over the pronunciation, or don't know how to pronounce a name, I'm momentarily taken out of the story. And I would hate to imagine that somewhere someone is reading my book aloud and is stumbling over a name.

All this makes me realize that maybe I need to create a phonetic glossary of character names for my Marie Antoinette wip.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I love weird names. My only caveat is the same as Leslie's: I've got to be able to pronounce them.

This was a huge problem for the historical side of my Texas vamps. Just try to find a phonetic guide for medieval Spanish. Folks were trilingual back then. One of those languages has since split into one language (with two major dictionaries/dialects) and another regional variant that desperately wants to get recognized as a separate language, because it was the parent language. To say nothing of the fact that Spanish has quite different spelling/pronounciation hints now...

2:12 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I am SO ready for your new series to hit the shelves!

I like unusual names, something different and intriguing. I tend to research names that are used in novels that I haven't heard before just because I want to know where they originated.

I don't have the problem with pronunciation that other people have as I was drilled in the IPA (international phonetic alphabet) by my voice coach and my language and diction professor. I may have to try it out a couple of names but as words are very like music to me I enjoy it.

I especially enjoy it when an unusual name is used and I discover the origin tells me something about the character's personality.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Cynthia Owens said...

I love unusual names, but I also like to know how they're pronounced. In my first novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow, my Irish heroine's name was Siobhan Desmond. I'd submitted to my editor usuing "Shivaun" (an Americanized version), but she wanted the Irish Gaelic spelling, so we put in a line explaining how it was pronounced. People who read the book later commented on it, so it seemed to work.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

All I can say is I love your editor! "Shivaun" makes me want to cry and scream and would never have been "Siobhan" in my head.

(and yes, I've made the switch to Izzy!).

10:11 AM  
Blogger Recycled Cottage & Garden said...

I love names, especially as a genealogist, but I do like knowing how to pronounce them. I have a great grandmother with an unusual name that I have no idea where it came from. Flemontine, and her nickname was Flammon or Flemmon. She was a Hatfield, a cousin of the feuding ones and livedin TN in the 1800's.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous lynna banning said...

I'm with you! I love unusual names in novels;
it gives such "flair" to the namee.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think unusual names need to be treated with a discretion, and an ear, that very few historical romance novelists seem to have. Take a look at the wikipedia entries for the English peerage and note that all but one of the dukes of Richmond has been named "Charles," and the exception, "Frederick," was a second son (who apparently named his son "Charles"). Dozens of English dukes have been named "Charles," in fact, most likely because dozens of English dukes have been descended from Charles II. If you're going to give an English aristocrat a name that isn't "Charles," "Richard," "John," "Frederick," or the like, you probably ought to have some good reason for it. As I recall, the Mallorens had a scholarly parent who picked their names based on his interests. Okay, but it's still a little dicey. And don't even get me started on surnames and titles. For god's sake, take a look at a map of England and pick your names/titles from there. Think about the names aristocratic families actually have -- Neville, Percy, Beauclerk, Howard, Churchill, Sackville-West, Russell -- and try to give them something that fits with those patterns. Don't give English aristocrats Irish surnames (Suzanne Enoch, I am looking at you). When your actual English heroine can't pronounce the English hero's title -- "Jervaulx", anyone? -- something is wrong. (Okay, maybe there are Englishwomen who don't know how to prounouce a Scottish title like "Bucchleuch," but Norfolk? Richmond? St. Albans? Devonshire? Give me a break.) Just as there are way more romance-novel dukes and marquesses than there ever were in real life, there seem to be way more Sebastians and Sylvesters. Why not buck the trend and have a John, Michael, David, or Stephen?

2:13 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Catching up late, because I was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when this first posted. I'm so excited for your new series, Isobel! I like unusual names when it makes sense for the characters to have them (i.e., the parents naming the children history or classics because of their interests). In fact, I find that to name characters I often have to think about who their parents were and what names they'd have chosen. Charles's sister had two different names, neither of which felt "right" to me, until I realized her half-French mother wouldn't have named her after herself (her first name was Beth, her mother is Elizabeth) or given her a classical name (her second name was Diana) but would have given her a French name. She became Gisèle, which felt right and helped her character fall into place.

11:33 AM  

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