I am Everard Dominic Benedict Ashford Alexander Artichoke FitzGrennan, Duke of Hawkraven, known and feared as Satan’s Elbow, but you may address me as…Cuddles. Top Ten Things, Rules of Gentility
Part X, because this is something we write about again and again–how to find names for characters that don’t sound hideously 21st century, that somehow represent a quality of the character, and lend themselves to different forms of address. How would your hero’s mother, sister, mistress, best friend, etc. address him? (Other than as “sir,” of course.)
This is something on my mind at the moment because I’m considering changing the hero’s name in a book that’s pretty much written. For one thing, his nickname, a shortened version of his title, is a sort of fish. And yes, he’s a retired naval officer, but even so… His first name is pretty much nonedescript because no one ever uses it. Everyone close to him uses his nickname, even the heroine. As far as fish names go, I can think of better ones–Hal, short for Viscount Halibut–but there are also minor characters called Henry and Harry. Not that he has to have a fish name–I’m trying to get away from the fish motif, you understand. And it bothers me that somehow, in not having the right name, I don’t have the proper handle on the character. Eeek.
So I did a bit of research on favorite names and it’s a small but level playing field in the 18th-19th century: lots of Johns and Williams. There’s a list at thinkbabynames.com but I’m not sure how accurate it is in relation to usage then or or now, and some are specific to the US. For a list of popular English girls’ names in the eighteenth century, there’s some good information in Female Names over the Centuries.
I like old-fashioned interchangeable male/female names like Evelyn and Joslyn. (Did you know that John Wayne’s real name was Marion Michael Morrison and he adopted the nickname Duke in his youth?)
The book Bad Baby Names by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback,was reviewed in the NY Times by John Tierney:
By scouring census records from 1790 to 1930, Mr. Sherrod and Mr. Rayback discovered Garage Empty, Hysteria Johnson, King Arthur, Infinity Hubbard, Please Cope, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).
The authors also interviewed adults today who had survived names like Candy Stohr, Cash Guy, Mary Christmas, River Jordan and Rasp Berry. All of them, even Happy Day, seemed untraumatized.
A contest that followed the review for the worst modern name came up with this winner:
Iona Knipl. The judges chose it because, in addition to being an embarrassing pun, it also set up an inevitable reply from people imagining they were being wittily original. I called up Miss Knipl and asked her how many times she had heard someone meet her and reply, “I own two.”
As for names that seem to have implicit meaning, if you read Chuck Shepherds’s News of the Weird, you’ll know that the name Wayne has unfortunate connotations and the column has regular Wayne updates.
So I won’t be renaming my hero Wayne.
Here’s a short story I wrote in 2001 at the writing site Toasted Cheese, all about the different forms of names and what they can say about characters.
The hero in A Most Lamentable Comedy is called Nicholas Congrevance, because I like the first name and his surname is a French Arthurian name I came across that seems suitably foreign and exotic. The heroine was originally named Mary, which I found a very stultifying good girl name (although her first appearance in The Rules was as a very bad girl indeed) so I changed it to Caroline, and she took off. The book is released July 23 and you can order it with free shipping from bookdepository.co.uk. And don’t forget the contest at my website!
Compulsory promotion over, what are your favorite names in fiction and in real life? Is there an interesting story behind a character’s name in one of your books?
I am writing an update of Northanger Abbey where the heroine’s name is Catharine, but she goes by Khaki. One of my friend’s is reading it as I go along and she thought Khaki was a cute modern nickname. This made me laugh because my great great grandmother was Catharine and called Khaki. In fact all Catharines in my family are called Khaki. I also think it fits with my line in NA about a girl not being able to reach the age of 16 without wholly changing her name…the line refers to Catherine’s little sister, Sarah or Sally.
I like Landon Park-Laine in The Eyre Affair although recently learned it is a pun and means “Land on Park Place” like Monopoly the boardgame.
In my family we have a thing of taking last names and making them first names…so I have a little brother, Braddock, which is a very uncommon first name.
If I have a son he will be Emmet Greyson after Thomas Addis Emmet, Robert Emmet’s brother, who we are related to. And yes, it’s THAT Robert Emmet.
The hero in my book is called Dafydd and is Welsh. He’s called Dai (Die) for short and there’s an interesting scene with that since it seems strange to us, but to the Welsh it’s like Dave.
I was trying to find an updated version of Isabelle for the one character and saw a mother who loved the names Elizabeth and Isabelle and wanted to combine them to Elizabelle. I shudder.
In one WIP, my heroine was so nameless I invited visitors to my blog to help me out. I could see her, I could almost smell her (she was very dirty), but couldn’t name her. I got some interesting suggestions. But after reading 20,001 Names For baby, she became Gemma, a jewel just waiting for the hero to polish. 🙂
Can’t wait for your new book!
Maggie AKA Margaret, who was named for the million Margarets in her family and is somewhat resentful
Since my WIP features a lot of real people, most of whom have fairly ordinary names no matter how high their birth, I feel like I have to keep my invented characters’ names in proportion–when the real people have names like Henry and Charlotte, the fictional ones just blend in more seamlessly if they’re John, Anna, etc. than if I wrote in a bunch of Sebastians and Dominics. 🙂
Which is not to say I don’t give names a lot of thought. I spent days picking out just the right names for two American characters, a husband and wife from Boston. I wanted their names to stand out a bit from the British characters, but not too much, so I decided to go Old Testament for that descended-from-Puritans sound. I settled on Rebecca for the wife almost immediately, but the husband took forever. He was Samuel for awhile, because he seemed like a Sam, but then I wondered if Sam and Rebecca was too Cheers. I tried Josiah, but decided that with the last name I’d chosen (Barlow) it was too West Wing. Then he was Nathaniel, and that was just right until my nephew Nathan, who’s actually a Nathaniel, deployed to Afghanistan, because What’s-His-Face Barlow is destined to die on the battlefield, and I’m just superstitious enough not to want him to share a name with someone I love who’s in harm’s way. So now he’s Jonathan. But it doesn’t feel quite right and is subject to change.
As for real names, well, I like ’em old school. The kid should sound like s/he could be a character in one of my manuscripts. My daughter is Annabel. She was almost an Eleanor, and I suspect if we have another child and it’s a girl, that’ll be our choice. My husband and I have always had more trouble agreeing on boy names. If we had a son today, I’d want to name him Arthur, or maybe Henry, and my husband would choose Brendan. I have no idea how to bridge a style gap of that magnitude, so I’m left with hoping As-Yet-Hypothetical Kid #2 will be a girl.
I love Dickens’ character names, but I often wonder if we can get away with such now.
I’m still fairly playful, and try to keep meaning in names. The mysterious Ringmaster in my YA circus stories is named Jules Compere. It’s no mistake compere means godfather as the circus becomes a home for throwaway teens.
I’m currently writing a book with a protagonist named Winston Bee. He has a former-football-star brother whose nickname is Stinger.
And the 17 year old in my newest YA is named Cole Chan, because all the other characters have names derived from gemstones but he’s still a diamond in the rough so to speak. I LURVE playing with names.
And I can’t wait to read A Most Lamentable Comedy, because I dearly love to laugh!
The “Cuddles” never fails to bring a snorting laugh out of me no matter how many times I read it.
Jane, my kid’s stuffed baby cougar is Khakhi. Until now, I hadn’t known that such a name existed in real life.
The Hong Kong Chinese in the early 90s were famed for their unuual names: Neon, Lightning, etc. Zippy, modern, and English.
I really loved the ‘Artichoke’ bit when I first came across it in ‘Gentility’, and the elbow part made me snort.
I like ‘Congrevence’ too, but as a ‘real’ name without funny undertones.And I agree that ‘Mary’ is probably so freighted with layered meanings and reader assumptions it could be be difficult to choose it for a heroine.
I knew a Merry Christmas in college, only I’m pretty sure she spelled it Merry.
I obsess about names for my characters. I try not to give minor characters cool names that would someday make good hero or heroine names. I try to invent good surnames and title names for my heroes that make compelling first names, because it is more correct for them to be called “titlename.”
I find my title names by mixing up period titlenames. Ridgecrest and Greeenbriar might become Greencrest or Ridgebriar, although those are both terrible names.
And I peruse the baby name sites for good first names.
My favorite character name was my hero in A Reputable Rake – Cyprian Sloane. He hated being called Cyprian, which at the time was slang for a harlot.
Susan, I love the names Annabel and Eleanor! I also like the old-school names–always thought if I had a daughter I’d name her Emma or maybe Elizabeth or Isabel. Luckily these are good name for romance novel heroines, too. 🙂 (and usually my characters come along and tell me what their names are, though I’m puzzling over one right now…)
The whole family name thing is odd–if my daughter had been a boy we would have “had” to name her John, James, Willis, or Edwin. What is also strange is families where two children might have the same first name, fairly common in medieval times, or a name recycled if a child died (didn’t that happen in Austen’s family? Trying to remember).
My mother had a female Scottish friend whose middle name was William b/c it was a family name and she was the one chosen to carry it on (presumably an only child). I understood that was a Scottish thing.
a name recycled if a child died (didn’t that happen in Austen’s family? Trying to remember).
Don’t know about Austen’s, but it definitely happened in Wellington’s family. He was the fourth-born and third surviving son of his parents, and the second-born was also named Arthur (for their mother’s father). When that Arthur died of smallpox as a young child, they recycled the name for the next son to come along.