Did you ever wonder where the names of the characters in your favorite novels came from? If you’re a writer yourself, you undoubtedly have a number of inventive ways to generate names. But even for writers, coming up with names that uniquely fit the people who inhabit their stories can be a mysterious, and even torturous, process.There are numerous baby name sites on the internet, which can be a great help in coming up with first names. If you write historicals, as I do, however, you need names appropriate to the period you're writing about. I often resort to my wide range of research resources, using the index to glean names from the period.
I’ve found that some characters actually come with names attached. When that happens, I mentally do a little caper of glee because that’s one I won’t have to agonize over. Unfortunately, I’m not always that lucky. The names of the main characters naturally require the most intensive thought because they’re the most important actors in the story. I want my hero/heroine to have names that signify their social position and character, then names I especially like and names that are sympathetic and will appeal to readers. They might also be symbolic of some deeper meaning or aspect of the character; Charles Dickens was particularly good at this. Creating a history for the characters and their families helps immensely in this process because family relationships and histories are often taken into consideration when it comes to naming babies.
It took a lot of effort to come up with Jonathan Carleton’s name, for instance. Jonathan wasn’t too hard—John was a very popular and common name in the 1700s, and since I wanted his to be distinctive, I decided to expand it to Jonathan, with the nickname of Jon, which I really like. But I struggled over his last name. It had to sound high-class British, but none of the various names I found quite fit. Most, of course, belonged to well-known people of the time, which raised the spectre of family relationships that would have to be accounted for. However, I kept being drawn back to Carleton, the last name of the governor of Canada, Sir Guy Carleton, which had a distinctive sound. I also liked the history of this name, which fits my extended history of Carleton’s family, combining Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman branches. In England, the name is most highly concentrated in southern Scotland. Below is an excerpt from an article found on The Internet Surname Database.
“This interesting surname, of combined Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon origin, is a locational name from any of the numerous places called Carlton or Carleton found all over England, but particularly in the north and east parts of the country, where there were many Scandinavian settlements. The placename means “the settlement or village of the free peasants”, derived from the Olde English pre 7th century word ceorlatun, which became Scandinavianised to karlatun. The component elements of the name are the Olde English ceorl (Old Norse karl), free peasant, villein; and the Olde English tun, village or settlement.
“Locational surnames were developed when former inhabitants of a place moved to another area, usually to seek work, and were best identified by the name of their birthplace. Early examples of the surname include: Geoffrey de Karlton (Bedfordshire, 1273) and Anabella de Carleton (Yorkshire, 1379). Mary Carlton, aged 23 yrs., who embarked from London on the ship Bonaventure bound for Virginia in January 1634, was one of the earliest recorded namebearers to settle in the New World. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Reginald de Karleton, which was dated 1272, in the Lincolnshire Hundred Rolls, during the reign of King Edward 1, known as “The Hammer of the Scots”, 1272–1307.”
I finally decided that the name fit Jonathan too well, and, hey, it’s a big family, and Jonathan can be Guy’s (very) distant relative. So I went with that, and if you’ve read the series, you’ll remember that this relationship is mentioned a couple of times in passing.
Elizabeth Howard’s name was a less torturous to create. My youngest daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth. I loved the character Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and really liked the idea of that being her nickname. And I’d watched a TV series on the six wives of Henry VIII and did a bit of research into the subject. The surname Howard and their history stood out to me, so decided to use it for Elizabeth’s family and have her be descended from that family line.
I find second- and third-level characters much harder to name. In upcoming posts, I’ll delve into what it took to come up with names and histories for Elizabeth’s and Jonathan’s extended families—some of which, thankfully, did come with names attached—as well as Charles Andrews, the cast of Indian and French characters, and others. Currently I’m slogging through the process of generating names for the personnel aboard 3 of Carleton’s privateers: Destiny, Liberty, and Invictus. For them I need French and Spanish names and possibly a few Dutch too, since those countries were generally hostile to Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries.
If you write fiction, how do you come up with names for your characters? If you’re not a writer, I’ll bet you’ve had occasions to name someone, whether a new baby or a new pet. How did you settle on the names for each one? Share your naming experience!
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