Name Theory: Character Names in Historical Fiction

Writers of historical fiction, and writers of historical fantasy, have to decide how much research they will do before they start the actual writing. Some do years of research, learning everything there is about their given time period. Others may just dive into the writing and do some here and there research as they go. Many do some all-around research to get an idea of that time and then do fill-in research as needed after they begin writing.

No matter what style of researcher a writer is, he or she should consider names as part of their research.

As I said a few weeks ago, names are part of world building. They are constant reminders, every time Margrethe says something or Augustus does something in the text, of the time and place the story is set in. Names in historical fiction also help to set the time and place in the readers’ minds.

As part of a writer’s research, he or she should keep a list of popular and interesting names from the time period to use later. Unusual names of very well-known historical figures might be better off avoided, but rare names of lesser known people will offer color to a novel.

Once a writer has his list of historically accurate (or reasonably accurate) names, all he or she needs to do is to choose a name that feels right for a character of that age (e.g. 2, 20, 40, 80) and for a character with that demeanor (e.g. virgin/whore or fighter/peace maker).

It should come as no surprise that an idea for a novel, for which I have only written the barest sketch, is already fully named. That story, which I plan to work on this summer, is a retelling of Cinderella set in renaissance Italy. For my heroine, I searched for names ending in -ella and found one with a Latin root that, while not technically accurate, is realistic and believable for the time period. For the stepsisters, stepmother, and other characters, I found a list of actual feminine names used in renaissance Italy, and I chose that each of the uglies would be named after her mother or father (a common occurrence at that time and place). And, since I have that list, every time a female character comes up in the novel I will be able to go to the list and chose an appropriate name for her without having to do any additional work at all.

Research for the win.


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