How do you come up with names for your characters? It is a question I am frequently asked. The short answer is: not easily! For one thing, most of my books are set in Regency England and I have to be sure that any name I choose was in use then or that at least I can justify its use. And there is the problem of the fact that I have written more than 100 novels and novellas, and each of them has a hero and a heroine and a whole host of secondary characters, all of whom need names. First names and surnames. And very often title names as well since, as is customary in Regency historicals, most of the characters are of the upper classes, often the aristocracy. Oh, and most of them live in country homes that have names and in London houses that also have names. Why do characters and their properties have to have names?
Sometimes the flow of my writing is halted while I sit for five or ten minutes just thinking up a name for a minor character–and drinking my coffee. And occasionally I dream up names like Leonard Bruce and Peter Jennings (both of them in the book I have just finished writing) because I don’t watch much television or know many other celebrities. My editor kindly pointed out the problem this time, and those two minor characters are now Leonard Burton and Peter Jenkins. Of course, I do have a family called Huxtable in one series with one daughter named Vanessa! No one whispered “Bill Cosby” in my ear until after First Comes Marriage was published.
In recent years, in North America anyway, new parents often go out of their way to give the new child an unusual, distinctive name. Any combination of letters is acceptable provided, I suppose, there is at least one vowel or vowel equivalent thrown in. Not so in Regency England! It does seem that a very large number of men were George or Charles or Robert or John or one of a few other staples, while women tended to be Charlotte or Jane or Louisa or Elizabeth. It’s not easy to come up with a different and acceptable name for more than 100 heroes and heroines. It’s impossible, in fact. I have repeated several names. I have repeated them many times for secondary characters.
It is, however, possible to use more unusual names provided the name can be justified in its historic context. The Bedwyns, for example, do not have conventional names–Aidan, Rannulf, Freyja, Alleyne, Morgan, Wilfric. I invented for them a mother who loved to read Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature and chose names for her children accordingly. The old duke must have been quite accommodating on the naming of his children. Names of Latin and Greek origin are acceptable because all gentlemen and many ladies had a classical education. I have a Constantine and a Marcus and a Cassandra. Sometimes I come across an unusual name that actually belonged to someone living in the era–Sydnam, for example. Another consideration when choosing names is making them suit the character. I have occasionally had all sorts of difficulty bringing a hero or heroine to life on the page until I realized that he/she had the wrong name! I have heard other writers say the same thing.
I must admit I am a bit careless in my choice of title names. I draw them out of the air. Someone asked me a while ago if I choose them by looking at a list of British titles that were in abeyance and therefore fair game for my use.. I felt a bit like a deer caught in the headlights. Ought I to have been doing it that way? I have made a blooper at least once. Mary Gregg, heroine of The Notorious Rake, is the widowed Lady Mornington. Mornington was the title name of the Duke of Wellington’s brother. I would have avoided it if I had remembered in time.
One thing I wish I had done from the start of my career (new writers, take note!) is to make an index of all the names I have used–first names, surnames, title names, property names and in which book they appeared. It would be a gargantuan task now but would help out a great deal in preventing unintentional duplications. Readers occasionally ask me if a certain character is related to another character of the same name in another book. Often the answer is no–I had simply forgotten that I had used the name before. Being prolific has its problems!
To someone who leaves a comment before the end of next Tuesday, August 27, I will send signed copies of both THE PROPOSAL and THE ARRANGEMENT in honor of the fact that the latter is to be published that day. Last week’s winner was Joyce Medley.