Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Naming Patterns

Like many other authors, I find names endlessly fascinating – the way they sound, how they fit together and what they mean – and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. As a child, I spent ages thinking up names for my dolls and stuffed toys. I also fantasised about changing my own name since I didn’t like the one I’d been given and wanted something better. Why couldn’t my parents have called me Selena or Madeleine, for example, which sounded very romantic to me, or maybe Athena or Jezebel? I would have loved those.

Lately, I’ve been indulging in my favourite hobby (apart from reading that is) of genealogy, which means looking at an endless stream of names. Apart from being a fun way to relax, it also gives me inspiration since some of them trigger story ideas. In my family tree I’ve come across a few interesting names, but also lots of boring ones. Actually, the names themselves are never boring, but the naming patterns of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were. Parents would insist on giving several babies the same one until a child finally survived. You’d think that after the fourth baby John or William died, the parents would realise the name was jinxed and move on to another, but no such luck. Makes life very difficult for anyone wanting to draw up a family tree and you wish they'd had more imagination.

Among my ancestors who did think outside the box there’s Mahala, Love, Fanny Frances (why two versions of the same name?), Tryphena and Vita Pura, all ladies with uncommon names, plus Garibaldi, Onslow, Royston and Warwick among the men. If only there were more like them!

Some are even more intriguing. Take my great-grandmother, for example – her maiden name was Martha Tombs. Sounds like the perfect character for a modern day vampire tale or something Gothic, doesn’t it? And yet in the one photo I have of her, she looks like your average cuddly grandmother. I really must name a heroine after her one day!

Names are so important to writers and I know most of us can’t get on with a story until we know what the hero and heroine are going to be called. I’m like that too, although most of the time the name just comes to me at the same time as the “spark” for the book. Sometimes finding the perfect name can be almost impossible though. I have one story I’ve rewritten three times with different names and it STILL doesn’t sound right – I’m hoping I’ll find out who the heroine is eventually.

There are some names I would never use – perhaps because they have bad connotations for me in some way – whereas others just feel right. What’s your favourite name for a heroine and why? Mine is Winter in Shadow of the Moon by M M Kaye, I think that’s so evocative and beautiful.

Do certain names have a special meaning for you and which ones would you never use? And have you ever come across a name you’ve never heard before and suddenly find a hero or heroine come alive in your mind almost instantly? That happened to me with my current one and it was wonderful!

Please come back on Sunday when Liz will be posting.


  1. Martha Tombs, what a great name! And such a great post, too. We've traced our family tree back to the 15th century and most of the names are quite traditional apart from a Mathaya, which seems odd. I came across a Clara and fell in love with the name and am itching to use her in a story.
    When I wrote my chick-lit mystery for Aspen Mountain Press, the hero's name, Jared Stryker, came to me instantly and he was very easy to write.
    Names I wouldn't use? Erm...Wilfred? Herbert?

  2. My favorite names... are always the ones of the people in my current WIP. :)
    As for genealogy - I've indulged.
    I've found a ton of "Anonymous" and "Anonyma" in the registers, and wondered about them.
    Most of my ancestors were farmers. It's a hard life, and was even harder back in 1700/1800 or so. All those anonymous ones were "Stillborn".
    I put it in quotes, because... I asked my dad about it -- and found out some pretty horrible things.
    You see, back then, if there was something wrong with the baby, they wouldn't show it to the mother, so she doesn't get attached to it.
    And most (not all, but most) of those babies would be drowned (or otherwise killed).
    This might sound absolutely horrific and terrible to us -- but don't forget these people did not have the facilities we have today.
    Imagine a disabled child in those days. Not only would it be in danger the entire time, growing up on a farm, but what did it (or the parents) have to look forward to?
    A life of ridicule, possibly fear and hatred, ostracization, a life in a freak show? I think perhaps they did those babies a favor.
    Genealogy is definitely an eye opener, I found out that much! :)

  3. Nicolette - Mathaya is intriguing, never found that one before! And you're so lucky to have gone all the way back to the 15th century, that's very difficult with some surnames. Mine goes back to 1759 for sure, after that it's guesswork at the moment. Jared Stryker - great name!

    Silke - that's very sad about the drowned babies, but perhaps people saw things differently back then. You can come across some terrible things when you do genealogy, for instance I found someone who was hanged for stealing a gold watch and he was only 17 or 18. What a waste of a young life! But there's some lovely stuff too, I love the success stories. And whether the information you find out is good or bad, it's a very addictive hobby!

    Thank you both for your comments.

  4. Names are so important because the carry such weight - do we take on the weight of the name??? I know that once I hit my teens I didnt want to be called Elizabeth - it was too grand and serious so I became Liz. I just felt I had less to live up. I think characters can be the same way. In the book I wrote for NoNoWriMo this the heroine's name is really important to her and she keeps is secret almost and lets the world use variations of it...

    Naming characters is like choosing names for your own's a joy and burden :-)


  5. Fascinating post!

    I like finding names in the family tree when writing regencies, but I've gone to name lists for modern stories - some lists have names that were popular by year, which is a help if you want the name to be current with the age of the character. Sometimes I write and pop a name in out of the blue just to fill the space, and then that name refuses to go away, whether I want it to or not.