What’s In A Name . . .?


The names we choose for the characters in our novels may come to us in a blinding flash . . . or we could spend days, weeks, or even months dredging them up from the bottom of the fish pond. Alternatively, we might have already chosen our main characters’ names before we even start writing the book. Then again, we might have known for years we would write about a particular character or characters.

How do we actually go about the name-choosing process? For example, why did we call the pretty and very feminine young lady ‘Daisy,’ or ‘Poppy’ – or any such flowery name – whereas, for the older strait-laced woman we opt for Gertrude, Beatrice or Penelope?

You may call me Miss Gertrude Ramsbottom.

Of course, the abbreviated form of these formal-sounding names (e.g. Gertie) could be used for a less prim and starchy figure.

Often, we pick names we feel suit the characters so well, or even their professions. Or perhaps, the name is so inappropriate to the character that it’s comical – which is, undoubtedly, the author’s intent. How many times has a tall, brawny man acquired the nickname of ‘Tiny’?

There seem to be a whole list of things to take into consideration, including ethnic origin of the character(s) and/or where the story is set. Then there’s simply that gut feeling that the name is just right.


Certain names are definitely more prevalent than others at particular periods. Many names used in novels set in the Victorian era include names we associate with that time. A few examples could be Albert, Ernest and Frederick, and Minnie, Florence and Bertha. Many Victorian names have had a big ‘come-back’ in recent years, although many tend to use the shortened versions – Sam for example, and not the complete, Samuel. My mother’s name, Millicent, is now used quite a lot for girls in the UK, but generally as Millie (or Milly).

When writing historical fiction, unless the complete cast of characters is fictional, many of our characters’ names are predetermined. We can hardly call Henry VIII, Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great anything other than those names. Right?

Just call me Fred

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

My books are set in the mid 9th century, and one of my two protagonists is King Alfred of Wessex (later known as Alfred the Great).  Alfred is an easy enough name to get your tongue around (although it was originally in the form of Aelfraed, which oddly enough means, ‘Elf counsel’).

Statue of King Alfred of Wessex in Wantage – reputed to be his birthplace

But most Anglo-Saxon names are extremely difficult to pronounce, and to spell. There seem to be letters stuck in places which look quite out of place to us. For example, Alfred’s grandfather was called Ecgberht. What’s with the extra ‘c’ and ‘h’? For pronunciation they mean little; we simply say Egbert.

I can’t change real historical people’s names. In my book, I have lots of Anglo-Saxon and Danish/Viking names, but the A.S. ones are the most confusing. Alfred himself is one of six children, their father being King Aethelwulf of Wessex. Like Aethelwulf himself, five of his children have names beginning with the prefix ‘Aethel’. Only Alfred is different, which is quite convenient, really! Even Alfred’s only sister is called, Aethelswith.

Perhaps readers could just drop the ‘Aethel’ part and just remember the last syllable. It would be easy to think of Aethelstan as Stan, or Aethelberht as Bert!

Confusing names can put people off – but what can the poor historical fiction author do about it? I have a list of characters at the front of the book and hope readers will use it. And I don’t really think that pronunciation matters so much, as long as a reader knows which character is which. One reviewer on Amazon.co.uk said that they enjoyed my book once they’d got used to all the difficult names. An honest opinion, and obviously valued as such. But I could name many novels with difficult-sounding names – many fantasy novels, in particular.

Anglo-Saxon place names are equally difficult, in many cases they are nothing like the names of English towns today. I know that some authors have used these A.S. names and added a list at the back/front giving their modern equivalents. I decided to call the towns and villages in A.S. England by their modern names, simply not to complicate things further. It’s easy enough for anyone to find a webpage of comparative lists.

A few interesting quotes about names:

Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.” -Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Emilie. A beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”  -Marissa Meyer, Scarlet

Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

3 thoughts on “What’s In A Name . . .?

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