History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 September 2012

Names & Context

When I first heard the name of Joan's baby on Mad Men this past season, I thought, "Kevin sounds sort of modern for the sixties." Then I realized Mad Men was now taking place in the year I was born (1966), and I went to school with a number of Kevins, so it was in fact a very appropriate name. I just don't associate it with the sixties because the people I think of when I think of the sixties were adults then and born decades before. Which made me think about naming characters in historical fiction and how we need to consider the cultural influences not of the time in which are our books are set but of when our characters were born. Characters in their thirties or twenties in the Regency would have been named in the 1780s or 90s. When they were born, their parents might have been reading Henry Fielding, Fanny Burney, or Alexander Pope not Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, or Lord Byron. Those in their twenties and thirties in the early Victorian era on the other hand would have been born in the Regency. While the name Victoria didn't soar in popularity until after Victoria became queen.

I'm writing this post as I watch the Emmy Awards. I suspect that if one looked at the names of characters in television shows and books, one would find more similarities to the names of babies born when those shows were aired or books were published than one would if one looked at real life adults the same age as the characters. Partly, of course, because names from popular culture inspire parents in naming their children. But also, I think, because the writers naming those characters are living in the same world with the same cultural influences as the parents naming their babies.

It can be a challenge, in historical fiction, finding a name that's historically accurate but still appeals to modern readers. Victorian names like Gladys or Edith would be problematic for the heroine of a novel written today, even if that novel was set in the late 1800s or early 1900s when those names were in vogue. On the other hand, a name like Jessica can sound modern and trendy though it's the name of a Shakespeare character and could certainly have been used historically (I used Jessica for Malcolm and Suzanne's daughter, though it didn't make my short list for my own baby girl because it did strike me as too trendy).

Authors, how do you choose names for your characters? Do you consider cultural influences when the characters were born? Readers, what matters more to you in the names of characters, historical authenticity or names you can relate to?

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Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

You are so right and have touched upon one of my pet peeves. In addition to accuracy, there are names that "sound" heroic (appropriate to a hero or heroine) and are acceptable and those that don't/aren't. (I once had to rename a Kenneth because the name was considered dorky in England.) Since I write in the Middle Ages, the problem is compounded by the fact that there were only about a dozen men's names in use: Robert, Henry, Edward...well, you can guess the rest, I'm sure.

5:39 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I think about this all the time Tracy. I'm working on a book set in 1895, and I've made sure that all my characters have names that were popular back then. I have characters named Edith, Lois, Mabel, Gertrude, Priscilla, Susan, although I named my main character Rose which would work in pretty much any era, and was a bit more flattering than Mabel!

6:41 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I know, Blythe! It can be so hard to find names that are both appropriate and heroic and as you say the list of names that were in use in an historical era is often much narrower than the ones in use today. Then in historical fiction one often has real historical characters in the mix, which rules out those names for fictional characters.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Rose is a great choice, Elizabeth! I too try to use names that fit the period, though I do give myself the latitude of using names that *could* could have been used even if they weren't hugely popular (for instance, after Shakespeare's time a name in a Shakespeare play could have been used even if it wasn't popular). This works particularly well if the parents are the sort who might have made unusual name changes, which goes back to cultural influences on the parents.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I too always try to use period names and have been known to curse the limitations of period databases. On the other hand, sometimes obscure groups of people offer the chance to use a much more modern sounding name. And that makes for some fun backstory...

7:23 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I totally agree, Diane - it's really fun to be able to use a more modern-sounding name and justify it, and the back story often helps define the character. Do you have some favorite names you've been able to use that way?

7:52 PM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

I've often griped that the Big Book of Late Georgian Baby Names is actually a pamphlet. So far I've stuck with very typical, period-appropriate names for my heroes and heroines--in my published books I've had William (Will), James, and John (Jack) paired with Anna, Lucy, and Elizabeth. But eventually I'll have to venture off the beaten path or start recycling names!

Still, I plan to stick within the realm of the possible. I figure if it's in the Bible, Shakespeare, or any part of history or mythology my characters' parents can be expected to know, it's fair game. I just have to figure out WHY those parents would have a Miriam or an Achilles in a world of Marys, Catherines, Henrys, and Georges, and how the children feel about being unusually named.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So true about late Georgian baby names, Susanna. I totally agree about choosing names that are possible even if not common. And as I mentioned above, it can be a fun piece of character development to figure out why the parents chose the name. Naming characters really involves a lot of thinking about their parents!

12:38 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Luckily there were always the odd exceptions (Anne-Holles for a man is my favorite, but I’ve also seen Perseus, Horatio, Cuthbert, Sydney, Richmal, Heneage, Vere, Scakville, Basil in either a peerage or Who’s Who in Early/Late Hanoverian England).

A classics scholar or a historian might go with something odd (hence my Leonidas and his sister Boudicea). I went with Arthurian knights for the next family (though I wanted to use Agravaine, not Gareth). And there’s also the convention of using the mother’s maiden name as the boy’s first name. Quite a few of those kicking around the late Georgian period.

Though yes, I think 99% of them are named William, John, George, Henry, Thomas, or Charles. I was actually surprised at how uncommon names like Edward, Richard, David, and Arthur were when I was making up my list.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love those exceptions, Isobel! Jane Austen actually has three characters named Charles in "Persuasion." And I think it's interesting that she used her own name for two secondary heroines. And she used Elizabeth both for a heroine and for a different heroine's difficult older sister. With Fitzwilliam Darcy she used the mother's maiden name as first name, which as you say offers a lot of options. And then there's the fact that elder son's with a courtesy title were often called by that name and it could persist after they inherited the main title - the Duke of Devonshire (Georgiana's son) was the Marquess of Hartington and called "Hart" which his sister Harriet continues to call him in her letters long after he becomes the duke.

1:03 AM  

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