Names hold power. People gain identity when they’re named. It may not be the identity they want, or in the case of foundlings or slaves bear any connection with their ancestry but it’s the one they’re given. In older times, the right birth-name might protect a baby from another realm and a ‘real’ name might be given at puberty to indicate something crucial – perhaps even a secret, spiritual name known only to a select few.
The parents’ religious beliefs might lead them to name a child after a saint or prominent preacher or an idea, although nowadays, it’s quite possible to be called Joseph, Spurgeon or Makepeace without any religious implication at all.
Whatever you’re called and why, do you shape your name or does it shape you? Will you turn out differently depending on whether you’re called Andrew or Aloysius or Artichoke?
My own name isn’t even a noun. It’s an adjective, the feminine of Paulus, Latin for small. I am small, but my mother says she just wanted a name that couldn’t be shortened. Naturally it has been shortened most of my adult life, although never by my mother.
I was asked for suggestions when my sister was born and am responsible for her being called Julia which I chose from a book about a little girl who had a fluffy chicken. Given that I was three at the time, I suspect my sister is named after the chicken. Mum thought that no-one could shorten Julia either, but naturally they do.
As far as my own children were concerned, my husband and I argued and argued until we finally agreed. This involved, believe it or not, trailing through the cast lists in a TV listings guide to find something we both liked.
In contrast, you’d think it would be comparatively easy for a writer to name characters. I invented them, so I should have free rein. But actually, even though I do substantial research, it’s the character who tells me what they’re actually called.
In Murder Britannica and Murder Durnovaria, the characters are almost entirely Romano-British. Some are citizens and have adopted Roman or Romanised names. Others aren’t and/or haven’t. Lucretia is really called Rhee, but her father, wanting to get the most of the Romans re-named her Lucretia which means ‘profit’.
The average Briton in the 2nd Century AD would have spoken what is now broadly covered by the word Brythonic which over time became Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric and Breton with close links to Gaelic. The richer and more influential Briton would also have spoken Latin. And then they’d probably have mixed things up, had nicknames and dialects. My Romano-British characters therefore might be called something Latin, Brythonic, Welsh or entirely made-up.
Some have names which fit their personalities: Eira (Welsh for snow) is rather cold and Deryn (Welsh for bird) is more comfortable with nature than people. Then there are Dun and Gris whose names suit two muddy grave-robbers. However, while I was writing the third book, Dun reminded me in Brythonic and Gaelic, Dùn means fort and there’s more to him than I’d given him credit for. (If you love words, here’s a fascinating site to explore Brythonic Word of the Day).
It’s easier with more recent eras. Lists of the top 100/200 names are online, although US ones pop up before UK ones and I don’t always realise until I see ‘Earl’ as a popular name for boys that I’ve crossed The Pond by accident. You can even see how your own name has fared over the last 100 years.
Once in the right country, I’ll find the approximate decade when a character would have been born and see what resonates.
In The Wrong Sort to Die (set 1910), the main character Margaret (born 1874) had originally come into being as the younger sister of Katherine (born 1865) in The Case of the Black Tulips (set 1890). Katherine is one of my favourite names but I can’t actually recall how I came to ‘discover’ Margaret. She probably just told me when I wasn’t paying attention. Fox however, just popped into my head fully formed and fully named (if of course, that’s really his name).
The book also features a Goan Catholic who’s moved to London, married an Englishwoman and had children. Goan Catholic names have Portuguese roots and I found ones online that he and his English wife were most likely to give their children which might subsequently be Anglicised. They felt just right in the end.
Like many writers, I have novels in a cyber drawer. Some have characters whose names feel perfect. But not all.
In 2015 I wrote a 50,000 word novel for Nanowrimo. This formed the basis of a longer book which I edited and sent to Beta readers for input. To my disappointment, they mostly concluded that the main character is very boring. After I’d licked my wounds, I had to agree. For more than half the book she is extremely passive and remains in a horrible situation for no logical reason.
At the moment, she is called Sarah. I have no idea why I picked that name but now thinks she’s somehow a grown-up human version of my old doll Sarah-Jane who equally didn’t have much personality. Maybe that’s what’s part of her problem.
So I’ve since concluded that Sarah can’t be her real name and put the book very much back in the cyber drawer. While the sub-subconscious works out how to make her more engaging (and more importantly, pro-active) I’m living in hope that she’ll wake up and tell me what she’s actually called because that might really help.
Research though can lead to unexpected ideas. Recently, I bought a second hand book called ‘The Romance of Parish Registers’. It’s a lot more fascinating than it sounds. For example: how about the surname Clinkadagger recorded in Cranford parish registers in 1630 or Drybutter recorded in Barking between 1558-1650? And a register in Denham Bucks records that Henry Criple married Easter Christmas on 7th September 1704.
I have been pretty conventional with my naming so far, but who knows? It may not just be Sarah who needs to less boring…
Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.