15 January, 2006

Character names in historical fiction

Names are vital in creating the right image for characters. For example, I find it hard to imagine Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights having anything like the same brooding presence if he had had an ordinary name like John or Richard, or to imagine James Bond having the same alpha-male impact if his friends called him Jimmy, or to imagine Jane Eyre with a fanciful name like Ginevra. So far, so obvious.

Historical fiction presents some additional twists on the issue, however. To my mind, the character names have to be authentic for the period and setting. I'd have real trouble reading a Regency romance where the heroine had a modern name like Kylie, for example, or a story set in Arthurian Britain where the heroes had Norman names, or a story set in Wales where the characters had Irish or Scottish names. I also feel strongly that if the characters are real people whose names are documented, the real name should be used. This produces some potential difficulties.

Firstly, in some historical settings there seem to have been quite a small number of very popular names, and so you find that several people in the story had the same name. How does the writer keep them separate so the reader can tell who is who? One way is to use nicknames (real or invented); Nigel Tranter used nicknames to differentiate between the four ladies named Marie who served Mary Queen of Scots in Warden of the Queen's March. Another way is to be creative with variants of the name. In Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, Sharon Penman has four important women called Eleanor and manages the names thus: Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III (Eleanor); Eleanor Plantagenet, sister of Henry III and wife of Simon de Montfort (Nell); Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I (Eleanora); Eleanor de Montfort, daughter of Simon de Montfort (Ellen).

Secondly, some historical names have gone completely out of use and are unfamiliar to a modern reader. Many Old English names disappeared in Britain in the centuries after the Norman Conquest, though a few remained in use or were revived in the Victorian period when there was a vogue for things Anglo-Saxon (e.g. Alfred, Edward, Edwin, Hilda, Ethel). Some of the Welsh names in the Mabinogion or the genealogies are still in use (e.g. Angharad, Owain, Cadwallader), others have vanished. My feeling on this is that unfamiliar names are not too much of a problem, because presumably people reading historical fiction are expecting to enter a world that isn't the same as the modern world and will take the names on trust. However, I think a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar names might be a problem. It doesn't bother me to find 'Angharad' in the Mabinogion even though I went to school with a girl called Angharad, or to find 'Edwin' in Bede even though I had a great-uncle called Edwin, but that's because I happen to know both names have been in use for centuries. But I can imagine that it might be jarring to someone who doesn't know that. So in my fiction set in seventh century Britain, I try to avoid names that are still in contemporary use. Where the character is a real historical figure and had a name that is still in use, I stick to the real name but use an archaic spelling instead of the modern one (e.g. Eadweard instead of Edward). (By the way, if you read the synopsis I submitted to Miss Snark's Crapometer, and find this confusing, it's because I changed all the names before submitting it. Call me sentimental, but some of my characters are real people who lived 1400 years ago, and although I didn't mind Miss Snark ridiculing me if I deserved it, I did not want her ridiculing them).

Thirdly, some names can conjure up a confusing image for a modern reader. For example, many Old English masculine names ended in -a. Now we are used to the idea that -a is a feminine ending, to the extent that a girl's name can be coined from a man's name by adding -a (e.g. Edwina, Nigella). So does it cause confusion to read about warriors called Lilla, Imma or Ida? JRR Tolkien changed the -a ending to -o for the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings for just this reason (see Appendix F), so Froda became Frodo and so on. I try to avoid it by using compound masculine names where possible, but where the Old English form is recorded (e.g., Lilla), I stick to it.

Any comments on this approach? Do you find unfamiliar names a problem when reading historical fiction? What could the writer do to help you keep the names straight?

14 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

At least you have names to chose from. Look at me trying to name 2nd century AD Selgovae. ;-) What I did was to plunder the Pictish King Lists and try to de-latinaze the spelling. That gave me at least a nice bunch of male names. For the female ones, I checked some online lists of Celtic/Gaelic names and looked for some which are testified as early as possible. Those names are probably not 100percent correct, but no one can prove they're wrong, either.

It gets less complicated for my 5th century AD novel, there is at least a number of Irish names both male and female I can use for the Irish and Dál Riatans. And I went back to those Pictish lists again. Gothic names are easier because we know the naming patterns (two words, basically, like Ala-reiks, Hadu-swinth) - with these I could easily construct a whole tribe of them. Latin proved no problem once I grasped the intricacies of the nomen/cognomen fun.

My Mediaeval problem of too many Henry and pals I solved by using the different language forms: Henry of England, Heinrich of Braunschweig, Henri of Flanders etc. The Mediaeval project poses a different problem because half of the characters are historical and better documented than the few Romans I also have.

So I have MCs like Talorcan and Muirtholoic (Selgovae), Ciaran (Dál Riatan) and Eoghanán (5th century Pict), Alamir (Goth), Caius Horatius Ravilla, Publius Valerius Messala, Decimus Aurelius Idamantes (Romans, the latter of Byzantine origins), Roderic Sinclair (Norman descedant Scot), Kjartan Haraldsson (Norseman) and Alastair O'Duibhne (westcoast clan chief).

And Artcois of the Votadini, a former Roman auxiliary officer from the tribe of the Tungrians at the lower Rhine, where he was known as Atrectus son of Andecarus, or Atrectus Andecarius to the Romans. Or Goicosenas, decurio of the Vardullian cavalry who comes from a Celtiberian tribe speaking a Basque dialect (Goikoetxea). In the latter case I looked up Basque names and Romanized them.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Hi Carla

Thanks for your comment on my blog.

I think that the kind of page you've got here is definitely useful. It shows you can write intelligently about mattters related/unrelated to your book, and you've got one eye on publicity - which agents are always keen about. One thing I *would* say is that you might think about giving a reason for using a pseudonym. Potentially, an agent might wonder if you're willing to put yourself behind your work. We both know that's an issue independent of using a pseudonym, but it might be worth making a brief comment on why you're using a pseudonym.

Best of luck,
Ian

Tony Keen said...

I also feel strongly that if the characters are real people whose names are documented, the real name should be used.

I must confess that what Robert Graves does in I, Claudius, naming Tiberius's son Drusus 'Castor' in order to avoid confusion with Tiberius' brother, and Drusus' daughter Julia 'Helen', there being a multiplicity of Julias in the Augustan family already, is something I have always found faintly irritating, even though I can see why he does it.

But where do you draw the line? If you're writing about the Macedonian invasion of Persia, do you write of Alexandros and Darayawush rather than Alexander and Darius? The former seems to me to be placing an unnecessary barrier between your text and the reader.

Rick said...

Carla - I thought Tolkien's riff of Froda to Frodo was pretty nifty! He did have the advantage of a made-up world where he could do so freely. You're in a stickier spot with real A-S male names ending in -a. Readers unfamiliar with them will be jarred by guys named Lilla (yikes - that's like the Boy Named Sue!), but readers who do have some background would be jarred if you changed it to Lillo. (Which sounds Italian, too.)

I hadn't realized that you changed names in your synopsis. So now I'm wondering. Is Wulfric a historical person, about whom little enough is known that you could play with him as protagonist?


Gabriele - your solution for the Selgovae sounds pretty good to me!


Even though mine is technically a fantasy, the setting is para-British enough that I have the problem of a very limited list of names with a suitable period (16th c.) flavor.

Since Lyonesse has a somewhat different history from its real-world counterpart, I do cheat a bit. I have an Emma, even though the name died out and was only revived much later (19th century?), and also a Kinthred, my "modernized" rendition of long-extinct Cynethrith. But I can only go so far, or I'd cease to evoke the parallel context.

There's also a question of the Celtic parts of Lyonesse. Should a Prydelendish maid of honor be Trelynda ferch Tewdwr or Trelynda Tudor?

Sometimes, though, I do just have fun. One character has (at least had) an Italian(esque) girlfriend named Teofania; he calls her Mistress Tiffany. My protagonist's name in narrative is Catherine, but our pronunciation was unknown in the 16th century, so in dialogue she calls herself Kateryn. I extended that principle a bit; other characters say Katrin or even Catriona. We'll see if an editor lets me get away with that!

Gabriele C. said...

I've some of that, too. Alastair is Alexander in Norway and Alexandre in France, the Romans would say Calternus, not Cailthearn, or Ceranus for Ciaran, and Roderic is Ruaraidh on the Scottish westcoast.

Rick said...

Gabriele - Slapping my forehead, because it never crossed my mind that Alastair = Alexander. The name got around even more than the guy did! The ones that fascinate me are to the east; I love the fact that Kandahar in Afghanistan got its name from Alex.

Rendition of names in local form was typical to fairly recent times - we still say Philip II of Spain, not Felipe; for that matter even from the 18th century, English usage remains Frederick and Catherine the Great, not Friedrich or Ekaterina.

Alex Bordessa said...

I'd rather have the original names. As a reader, I expect things to be different from what I'm used to - it's the past and they did things differently there. And yet ... I've had plenty of feedback from my writing where readers can't cope with unusual names. Ho-hum. Are they just looking for something - anything - to critique though?

One of my main characters is called Saba. He's a big noisy bloke. Everyone calls him Saba which is short for Saebert. Only his mum calls him Saebert! The name is based on king of East Anglia was called Saebert (or Saebald) and affectionately called Papa Saba. I thought I'd get away with 'Saba' but some woman on a wildlife programme has turned up called Saba ... Grr! He'll have to get called Bert or some such now. But perhaps not :-)

As for Lilla - Despite not being previously acquaited with the name, I didn't turn a hair when he turned up in Fay Sampson's 'Flight of the Sparrow. I didn't know about the Lilla Cross, btw, and I think a visit is in order ... :-)

Bernita said...

I hear you, Als.
My grandmother was named Edith... evokes Eadytha of the swan-neck.
One should be careful, in my opinion, no matter how authentic a name might be to the period, to not make it too much of a mouthful.

Alex, your naming pattern sounds excellent. Ignore the female. I doubt her existence will cast any confusion/ reflections on the masculinity of your guy.
Rick, it always gives me a bit of a light-bulb thrill as a reader when I can relate the name of a character such as "Tydder" or variant to "Tudor." One feels so clever. One feels the writer is clever, letting you in one a secret code.

Carla said...

Ian - thanks for coming to comment. Reason for a pen name is simply that I need my real name for my technical/scientific writing. I can't imagine a potential client hiring a technical writer because she also writes obscure historical fiction, but I can imagine one thinking 'weird' and being put off.

Gabriele - names for 2nd century Selgovae probably present the same sort of situation as Rick has with his 'fantasy' world; there are no documented forms so you have to find some from related cultures that feel authentic.

Tony - thanks for coming by to comment. Colleen McCullough in her 'Masters of Rome' series managed the profusion of Julias using dimunitives (Julia, Julilla), nicknames (two little girls called Ju-ju and Lia) and a sort of 'cognomen' addition e.g. Julia Tertia. I personally prefer that to the approach of changing the names, unless the author makes it clear in an Author's Note. I get terribly confused if a novel prompts me to go and read up on the period and it takes me ages to work out whether there are two different people (Julia and Helen in your example), or the same person with two names.

Your point about alternative forms is an interesting one, and chimes with Rick's point about rendition of foreign names to local forms (e.g. Frederick for Friedrich). If I were telling a story that revolved around the contrast/clash between two cultures, I'd try to use the different name forms to indicate cultural difference. So if I were telling a story about a Norman-French girl married into medieval Wales, I might have her Norman-French family address her as 'Catherine' and her Welsh husband and in-laws address her as 'Catrin', just to underline that she has moved into a whole new culture.

Rick - I'm guessing the 'Tre' part of Trelynda is derived from the 'Tre' in Breton and Cornish place names, so that people immediately recognise it as vaguely 'Celtic' even if they don't know why?

Interesting that Rick and Alex react differently to the idea of a warrior called Lilla. I'm with Alex on this one. Lillo just sounds silly to me :-) - possibly because when I was a kid there was a cartoon character on TV called Willo the Wisp, and Brillo pads are for cleaning the oven. Sigh. All these unlooked-for associations. No wonder brand agencies have so much trouble with product names :-)

Alex - you're on safe ground with Saba as a short form for Saebert - doesn't Bede refer to the apostate sons of King Saebert (the one who was king of Essex) calling their father Saba?

As you're in York, Lilla Cross would be a nice day-trip, especially if your foot continues to get better; it's quite a walk to it across the moors from any modern road. I'd say the easiest route is to start at the Whinstone Ridge car park on the B-road above Goathland (OS grid ref 852029) and follow the shooters' track past Robbed Howe, Foster Howes, Ann's Cross and Louven Howe. It's about 7 miles there and back, nearly flat, and when the heather's in full bloom in early August it's glorious.

Rick said...

Alex - I wouldn't sweat Saba just because some woman out in media land is named that. For one thing, in spite of the -a ending, it isn't all that feminine sounding. Lilla is much worse, with those L's, and the evocation of "lily."

Bernita - I'll take that as a vote in favor of the Welsh form, Tewdwr!

-- Rick

Alex Bordessa said...

Phew! I'm glad it's thumbs up for Saba - I doubt if I could think of the big idiot as anything else. Yes, his name was taken from Bede. I got very interested when the name was mention in connection with the Prittlewell Prince, though I'm not writing about the same Saba.

Na! Lilla sounds like a bloke to me. As Carla knows, I've got an Ida in my story. I think that name's going to have to be adjusted, given that I've already got a number of 'a' endings already. It starts to get to repetitive otherwise. Would Idehere be plausible? So that Ida would be a nickname?

Carla - I could get the train to Goathland. We were there in the summer and I saw the heather after we scrambled up the bank (didn't do the foot any good). I've got a small sprig of heather resting close to my computer screen at this moment!

And as for having a pen-name; I say on my blog that Alex is a pen-name to keep the historical fiction and historical fact works very separate. It's only sensible if you have some sort of academic profile. Peter Tremayne does the same, I gather

Carla said...

Idehere sounds plausible to me, especially as 'here' means 'army' so there's a nice martial overtone there.

Starting from Goathland station adds about another mile and a half to the walk to Lilla Cross, plus the climb out of the valley. Or there might be a York to Whitby (or Pickering to Whitby) bus that would drop you at Eller Beck Bridge on the A169 - that's the nearest point to Lilla Howe on a modern road. From there it's about a 2-mile walk straight up the Lyke Wake path, fine in dry conditions but can be very soggy after rain.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

As a reader, the only thing that bothers me about names in historical fiction is not knowing how to pronounce unfamiliar ones or archaic versions of familiar ones. For some reason, although I hardly ever read aloud, I find this not-knowing interrupts the novel's flow, no matter how good it is. So, please, a simple pronunciation guide.

Oh, and I'd rather not have to cope with unfamiliar names that look similar to each other.

I know, I know. That's two things.

The Roman naming system is full of traps for the unwary, so I find it a pretty good indicator of how well an author writing in that period has done their homework. Like everything else, though, it did break down at the empire's end, I believe.

I can, and do, take male names ending in -a quite happily in my stride. In truth, I'm rather partial to them.

Carla said...

Good point about the pronunciation guide, Sarah. Thank you.