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What Is In A Name?

The Introduction by Karl Gampenrieder 1889
The Introduction by Karl Gampenrieder 1889

Today I thought I’d share a bit about my writing process, namely naming characters! One of the first things I do when preparing to write a new book is choose the names. I’m pretty particular about character names, and I give myself a few rules about them. 

First, I try to remain true to the Regency period. No heroines named Tiffany or Autumn for me. Because of this, the variety of names from which to select is somewhat limited. I use lists of Regency names like this one or this one, compiled by Jo Beverley.  And if I’m still not satisfied, I look up English names on baby naming sites. This one is my favorite.

In naming the heroine of a Regency Historical Romance, I only really have to be concerned about given names and surnames. With heroes, though, it is more complicated. In this time in history, Englishmen were addressed by their title names or their surnames, even by wives, sometimes. I don’t always strickly follow this rule, but just in case, I try to give heroes both strong given names and surnames. For example, in my Soldier’s Series, the heroes are Gabriel Deane, Jack Vernon, and Allan Landon. I usually use hard consonants for hero names, but I didn’t with Allan, hero of Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress. He’s more conventional (with a capital C) and I thought a softer name suited him. 

None of the soldiers has a title. Titled characters are even more difficult, because they add another name to the list. A man has a given name, surname, and title name. So, the 12th Duke of Devonshire is Peregrine Cavendish. His son has a courtesy title, just to make things more confusing. He is William Cavendish, Earl of Burlington. Other heirs apparent to the title have used the courtesy title of Marquess of Hartington. So if all those names are used in a book, it would get even more confusing.

When I’ve had a titled hero I simplify matters by making the surname and the title name the same. This was not common during the Regency but it did happen.

Another problem with titles is that they still exist! I don’t want to name a character after a real person and I don’t want to use a real title. I’ll never use the name Peregrine Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. I make up title names. I look up title names on The Incomplete Peerage  and I take the titles and I split them and recombine them.  So the Earl of Sefton would be combined with the Earl of Kenmare to become Earl of Kenton.

I always do a Google search on my character names so I can be certain that I do not choose someone in the public eye. Once, without knowing it, I picked the name of a well-known British newscaster. My editors caught it in time for me to change it.

I go through this same process for secondary characters. Servants were rarely addressed by their first names. To make it comfortable for modern readers, I try to give servants surnames that sound like given names. I also try not to pick cool names for my secondary characters, because I might want them for my hero or heroine someday.

My final check is whether I’m using character names in the same book that start with the same letter of the alphabet. Nothing gets more confusing than if the hero is James, his best friend is John, the heroine is Joanna, and the villain is Jasper. By the same token, I also check that I didn’t use the same name in a previous book. You’d be surprised how manyof my butlers start out life named Kirby.

Now, I ask you. Is this too obsessive?

Do you notice names in books? Do you have any personal likes or dislikes about names in books? Any pet peeves (one of my pet peeves is heroines who have traditionally masculine names like Sam or Riley or Charlie)?

One commenter will be selected at random to win a signed copy of Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady, in which all my rules about names apply!

26 Comments

  1. What about the Bible? It might depend on belief/class, but surely some names were used – Rachel, Sarah, Mary… Maybe not Jezebel, or Melchisedeck though…?

    1. Alison, Biblical names work for the Regency, and my favorite baby naming site has a nice list of them. Another possibility are classical Greek or Roman names, because the Georgian and Regency people were influenced by classical literature and art. And their own Roman history!

  2. Thanks for the post today, Diane. I know names can be tough choices, especially from the Regency era and you do not want to repeat. Love the last line about Kirby the Butler. My husband and I had a hard enough time choosing a name for our baby (who is now 10), so I can’t imagine doing it for so many characters!

    1. Deb, naming one’s child is such a daunting task. You know it will affect them the rest of their lives! If your last name is “Litter,” you don’t want to name your daughter “Kitty.”

  3. Kitty Litter ? Too funny, O Divine One !! In my business (bakery manager) we get to see some really strange names which we usually have to write on a cake. I can’t tell you how many times my decorators and I have said “That kid is going to HATE her/his parents when they grow up.” These days it seems to be some sort of game to come up with a unique name or at least a unique spelling for a child’s name.

    I love your process and I will definitely be using some of the sites you posted.

    I have to name my characters before I start and you are so right, with titles in the story it makes it much more difficult. My CP and I came up with the hero’s name in the book I am just finishing up. Cain Overley, Marquis of Ashworth. We LOVE the name Cain for a hero and with the title Ashworth his friends call him Ash, which works for me.

  4. Firstly I must say I read your blog strictly as a gushing fan not a writer or as an aspiring anything. I can and do appreciate that you thoughtfully name your characters. I find that a silly or out of historical name will throw me off when reading. Also, thanks for the insight on your writing process. It will give me thoughtful pause when reading your books (like I know a alittle secret).

    1. Great, Kathleen. I hope you don’t notice when I don’t follow my own rules…..

      I think sometimes titles don’t make sense to readers. But if we do them wrong then we pull other readers out of the story.

      Anyway, the process of finding names is rather fun, like completing a puzzle.

  5. Through reading, I have found names that were unknown to me… some have made an impression on me… others are names that blend in… but for me it is the character as a whole, their description and personality that make them interesting and memorable.

    1. Colleen, I always hope that my character names are so perfect for the character that the reader doesn’t notice them in any special way.

  6. As a reader – thank you so much for making it less confusing!!! I find titles very confusing and the easier the better. Russian books give me the greatest grief lol. The only name that throws me off is one that I can’t pronounce. I will spend the entire book going back and forth on different pronounciations unless the author lets us know early on or even as a separate page if there are a lot of them.

  7. My father in law writes down the character names in the back of the book so he can keep them straight. I hope mine are never that confusing.

    I think pronounciation is one of the reasons novels set in France are not more popular…That said, I have French characters in Soldier Book #3…..oh oh.

  8. I also dislike the use of traditionally masculine names for female characters. It’s confusing and frustrating. I’m glad you go to all the work. It also means to go to all the extra effort in other areas. Good of you to be so careful not to use a real person’s name. That’s really very thoughtful. I have some passenger manifestos from ships leaving England for America during the early 1800s. So many of the names are truly common. I also like the short Ash.

    1. I’m with you on the masculine names, Judy!

      Oooh, I love the idea of passenger manifestos! I can’t help but realizing those were REAL people with those names!

  9. Diane,

    Do you have an idea of your character’s personality first and then does that affect what you name him/her? Or vice versa?

    Have you ever settled on a character’s name and then have to re-name once you started writing because the name just didn’t seem to fit?

    Do editors typically have “rules” concerning character names?

    Some of my favorite male names in Regencies are Jack, Sebastian, and Alistair. I am just predisposed to like a hero with those names. A hero named George, for example, has to work harder to win me over.

    1. Mary, I have sorta an idea of the character’s personality when I name him or her. Sometimes I get it wrong and I have to change the name later.

      When I wrote my first historical, The Mysterious Miss M, I named my hero Devlin St. Clair. Then I discovered that TONS of hero’s were named Devlin St. Clair. I changed him to Devlin Steele.

      An example of a name that led to forming a character’s personality was Cyprian Sloane. I was captivated by the name Cyprian, but I knew it also was Regency Slang for “prostitute.” Sloane was the “villain” in The Wagering Widow, but he was chomping at the bit to be a hero. So I gave him A Reputable Rake. His name definitely gave me ideas of what his background was like.

  10. As long as I can pronounce the name I’m happy. Some of the long names that are so unusual are distracting while I’m reading. I tend to just cut the name in half or give them my own nickname to make the reading smoother.

    1. Mitzi, I think the English have been doing exactly what you do with long names:
      Cholmondeley is pronounced “Chumly”
      Leicester is “Lester”
      Ravenstruther is “Renstrie”

  11. I like all those old French and English names. Charlotte, Jack, Simon and Aimee are some fav. I am not to fond of Scottish cause how do you pronounce them? But in the end it doesn’t really matter to me what a H/H is called. There are names that I like instantly and there are those that I learn to like but it’s their personality and their story that makes me love them, not what they are called.

    1. I like those names, too, Kirsten. In fact, my hero in Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady is named Jack.

      I also try to avoid names that are hard to know how to pronounce. If a story is compelling enough I might, like you, overcome a name I didn’t like, but what I’m trying to do is avoid that initial hesitation when you first read the name.

  12. Very interesting information on picking characters names…I hadn’t thought so much research goes into it. Thanks for the post.

    1. Jackie, I am sure most authors don’t obsess about names like I do! They are probably lucky enought to just “know” what their characters’ names are!

  13. It gets very complicated for you. Westerns are so much easier – call him Hank and push him out the door. Your care in choosing names will make a difference in your stories. It will properly reflect the social structure of the period which is so important in Regencies.

    1. Hahahahaha! I should be writing Westerns!!

      The truth about this naming thing is, I make it complicated for myself. I think, though, it is one of the things I do to keep myself “in” the Regency when I write.

  14. Funny, isn’t it, that some names just conjure up a whole person in your mind? Like Tom Sawyer’s brother, Sidney. If I ever met a real person with that name I would expect them to be real smarmy and scrawny.

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