What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
With all due respect to the Bard, I somehow don’t think my readers would feel that way if I were to name my next heroine Myrtle instead of Augusta. Both call up very different images in the mind.
As you might guess, this week for Romance Writers Weekly, I’m talking about how I choose my character names. Since I write Regency Historicals, name picking is not quite so easy as dropping by a baby name page or search what were the most common names 20-25 years ago. Add to that the fact the three most common names in England from the Middle Ages up to some point in the 19th Century were Catherine, Anne, Jane, and Mary. This means I have to digging.
But not just digging back to 1811, which is when my book is set, but further. What names showed up in letters 20 or 30 years before. Were they named after a godparent? That leads you back another 30 years or more.
Is it a family name? That lets us run further back. In The Accidental Viscountess, Dorothea’s aunt is named Honoria, which I decided was an old family name, dating back to the English Civil War and an ancestress who bravely held the family manor against the Roundheads. I happen to have an old manuscipt set in that period where the heroine is named Honoria. Yes, Lady Wilmont is descended from her.
I know I said choosing a name isn’t quite as easy and dropping by a baby name page, but British Baby Names does have a lovely specialized list of Georgian period names. Since that’s when my characters would have been born, it’s a great resource. Dorothea makes an apearance, as does Augusta. There’s also Dinah, Amelia, Alice, Georgiana, Esther, Philedelphia, and Theodosia. There’s also Euphemia, which I might use if I can think of a good nickname for the girl to use on a daily basis.
For men, there’s always Henry, William, John, Paul, Peter, Mark, Matthew, Luke, as well as Simon, Erasmus, Horatio, Miles, and Theophilus. Marmaduke is appropriate to the time and place, but I think I’ll reserve that for my awkward Duke of Stockwood. Remember, these are English names; if you’re dealing with Scotland, that’s a different kettle of fish. Augusta will find herself paired with Lord Blair MacDonald, who has as siblings John, Hamish, Finola, and Caitlin.
I love digging into old letters and name lists, finding primary sources to mine for new character names. But sometimes you come across a name which sounds too modern, and its use will pull the reader out of the story, no matter how much documentaition you might have. Yes, I’m talking about Tiffany.
The origins of the name is the Greek Theophania, which means “epiphany.” Somehow, it came to be translated (read: misunderstood and mangled) into English as Tiffany and was bestowed on girls born on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. There are records of girls being named such in the Middle Ages, but what would your reaction be if you picked up a medieval romance and saw the character’s name was Tiffany? I know the origins, and it would still pull me out of the story because it sounds modern.
What’s in a name? It forms a picture for the reader. That my next heroine’s name is Augusta gives you one image. That her father still refers to her by her childhood nickname of “Goose” gives you another. In fiction, names are often clues to who these characters are. And, sometimes, to quote P.G. Wodehouse, “There’s some warm work at the font, Jeeves.”
What about you? Do you have favorite names in romance, or ones that make you want to scream or, at the very least, delete the book from your reading device? Let me know in the comments, then hop on over to visit Brenda Margriet to learn how she finds names for her characters.
Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy.