In the eleventh century, Cnute, the Viking king of Engla-lond and Scandinavia, sails with his son, Harald, and his shield brothers to Rome. Thrown off course by a storm, they follow the route up the Rhine. When Harald hangs back to assist Selia, a beautiful Frisian woman, his path turns perilous. Newfound enemies, retainers of Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy, pursue them. Harald, Selia, and their companions fail to rendezvous with King Cnute, and are forced to travel cross-country on horseback. If Duke Robert's plan to assassinate Cnute succeeds, an invasion of Engla-lond will follow. Can Harald and Selia reach Rome in time to warn the King?
A Rose by Any Other Name…
Words interest me. I love learning new words and researching word origins (etymology). Words have two aspects: how they sound and what they mean. When it comes to names, what they mean no longer matters to us, but there is a third aspect, what associations they have for the reader.
As a writer, I have a number of resource books at hand such as Chambers Slang Dictionary, Medieval Terms and Phrases, and Dictionary of Surnames. One useful resource is The Baby Name Survey Book, by Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod. The subtitle reads, "What people think about your baby's name". So you're writing a romance novel and you have a male character who is a sloppy ne'er-do-well and you want to call him Freeman. This reference book tells you "people picture Freeman as a handsome, neat, well-dressed, proud, and wealthy black man." Several examples are listed: football's Freeman McNeil, actor Morgan Freeman. I won't dwell on this; the point is to consider associations the reader may have with a name.
Historical fiction is a genre I write in and the time I spend choosing character names is enjoyable. One story I am writing has the protagonist wash up on the Falkland Islands in the early nineteenth century. I don't wish to have him struggle with Spanish speakers, so I make the patriarch of the family who find him Irish––having first researched and discovered many Irish soldiers settled in Argentina after a failed invasion by Britain. My naming process is to google Irish surnames, read through the lists, and pull out several possible choices. I narrow the list down to four or five. In this case, they were:
Then I do the same with Irish male Christian names. I found so many good ones.
· Ruari (Rory)
What becomes important to me now is the sound and rhythm of when first and last name come together. I came up with one of the most rhythmic names: Clooney MacKigo. Say it aloud a few times. Feel the rhythm? You could probably tap it out on a drum. And I'm getting a sense of the character. Clooney will have a sense of humor, but MacKigo is strong-willed and a force to be reckoned with.
I have used this process with The Swan's Road, my novel set in eleventh-century Europe. I have had to find names for medieval Saxons, Danes, Frisians, Normans, Welshmen, European Jews, and Italians. Usually, I have an idea for the character and I search for a suitable name. I named my female protagonist, a determined and confident beauty, Selia Fehr––forgive me the play on Selia the Fair, I just loved the name. One good thing about a period and ethnic names is they do not carry the baggage discussed earlier.
Here is an excerpt from The Dane Law, a sequel to The Swan's Road, and a work in progress. My protagonist, Harald, and his friends are kidding another Danish friend, Yngvarr about how the king will reward him.
"…so he may give you gold…"
Yngvarr's eyes opened wide.
Yngvarr took on the look of a puffed up grouse in full courtship. He took another swig of ale.
"…or he may do you the ultimate of honor of marrying you to my ugly cousin, Gullborga."
We three doves aside as Yngvarr sprayed his mouthful of ale across the table.
"I beg of your pardon," Yngvarr said to Selia as he wiped the table with his sleeve.
"It is all right," she told him. "Harald must have his jesting." She gave a look to me and shook her head slightly.
"You don't have an ugly cousin Gullborga, do you, Harald?"
"No, Yngvarr. In truth, I do not."
"Well then, that's good."
"No, her name's Bothilda and she's twice your size!"
"Ah, you won't be catching me twice on that one," said Yngvarr, "besides, the bigger the woman, the warmer the bed. I've always admired a woman with plenty to hold on to."
This is a playful scene that only works because of the choice of particularly unflattering names for the imagined cousin. I hope it ended on a positive note for bountiful women.
One other important thing a writer should do is keep track of names and avoid using ones that look similar or are the same. I have read novels where they have two Michaels or a Michael and a Michelle. I keep an alphabetical list and try not to double up on monikers starting with the same letter. A fast reader may mix up the names. You would not have a Terry and a Jerry, even if they were twins.
I'll end with a few of the fictional character names I used in The Swan's Road and let you determine what kind of character qualities each conjures up.
· Bertran deZouche
· Floriano Roncalli
· Ravya ben Naaman
· Urbano Pupo
To see if you are right, you'll have to read The Swan's Road. I hope this article gives you a greater appreciation of well-named characters. And if you were to change your name…
Garth Pettersen is a Canadian writer who lives in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver, British Columbia. When he's not writing, he's riding horses and working with young, disabled riders.Garth's short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, and in journals such as Blank Spaces, The Spadina Literary Review, and The Opening Line Literary 'Zine. His story River's Rising was awarded an Honourable Mention for the Short Story America 2017 Prize, and his fantasy novella, River Born, was one of two runners-up in the Wundor Editions (UK) Short Fiction Prize. His debut novel, The Swan's Road will be released November 15th, by Tirgearr Publishing.
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