Naming fiction characters is like naming a baby. The person you’re naming will be stuck with that name for life. Or, in the case of fictional characters, potentially for centuries.
In fact, a quick web search shows that some writers take naming fiction characters more seriously than naming children. I say this because I found the articles about naming characters to be more helpful than the ones pertaining to upcoming bundles of joy. Go figure.
So what methods do I use to name my characters? I use one method for surnames and five methods for first names. I’ll discuss each in detail below. I have employed these methods in everything I have written to date, including Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind, Adjustment Year, Journey of Hope (coming in January 2022), Rose’s Assignment (coming April 2022), The Unmarriable Kind (coming July 2022), and my women’s fiction side project (coming 2023). There’s no reason to believe I’ll change since it’s worked out well so far.
Ethnically Appropriate Surnames
The characters in all six of my historical fiction works are Canadian. They were born in the 19th century when the population of the country was overwhelmingly of British or Scottish decent. For this reason, they sport family names such as Steward, Goodwin, Bartlette, Gray/Grey, Taylor, Hill, Morris, Winthrop and Appleton.
I love genealogy, and in 2016 I wrote a brief post listing where each of the family’s surnames originated from in the British Isles.
Not everyone in Canada, of course, had ancestors hailing from Great Britain. By the time the WWI trilogy is set, the nation had experienced an influx of immigrants from other parts of Europe. This is illustrated in the minor character (in Angel of Mercy and Adjustment Year) of Dr. Fitzpatrick who is Irish and still speaks with a brogue.
For my women’s fiction side project, I travel to Illinois in the mid-1990s through the present. For this reason, my characters are more culturally diverse.
“The most common ancestries of Illinois residents were German, Irish, Polish, English, and Italian,” according to City-Data.com. “There were also significant numbers of Scandinavians, Irish, Lithuanians, Serbs, Eastern European Jews, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Czechs, Greeks, and Dutch. Except for the widely dispersed Germans, most of these ethnic groups lived in and around Chicago.”
For this reason, several characters have German surnames. The heroine hails from a Greek family and has friends who are of Jewish, Scandinavian, Russian, Vietnamese and Hispanic decent. She also has a friend who is mixed race and one who is African-American. All these characters represent a more ethnically diverse world than the one I introduce readers to in my historical fiction.
To find appropriate surnames, I conducted a web search for “(ethnic group) common surnames in the United States.” For random classmates, co-workers, neighbors and others, I conducted a search for the most common surnames in the United States.
First Names Appropriate in Space and Time
Capturing the right first name is equally as important as an ethically appropriate surname. First names must make sense in the era and location the character is living. Here are the five methods I used to ensure my characters’ names fit.
Names I Love
Sometimes there is simply a name I love so much I must use it. That was the case with Henrietta “Hettie” Steward, the main character in Angel of Mercy and Adjustment Year. She’s named after another fictional character, Henrietta “Hetty” Wainthropp, from the BBC series Hetty Wainthropp Investigates starring Patricia Routledge as the title character. The series aired in the mid- to late-1990s in the UK and repeated here in the United States on PBS.
I fell in love with the name Hettie because I had previously never heard it. The name was too old fashioned to name my own daughter, but it was perfect for a character born in 1892.
Popular Names Back in the Day
Many, but not all, of my characters in the WWI trilogy feature names popular during their decade of birth. To find these names, I did a search on the Social Security Administration’s website for top names from the 1890s. The site lists the top 200 female and the top 200 male names.
Henrietta, by the way, was number 115.
The administration’s records only date back to the 1880s. Presumably, most people born in earlier decades had passed away when the administration was founded in the 1930s and there weren’t enough applications to create a top 200 list. For my other historical fiction stories, I conducted a search for names popular during the early and mid 19th centuries. These lists weren’t as scientifically accurate but they did point out names that were once popular but fell out of favor by the end of the century such as Enid, Dorcas, Ashley (for men) and Ebenezer.
For my side project, a large number of characters were born in the 1970s, so I again returned to the Social Security Administration’s website.
Baby Name Book
Some names, especially those in my side project that needed a specific nationality, came from a baby name book. I purchased the book I use when I was a teenager – at that time it was my only source for character names – and it contains more than 35,000 names.
The book has its limitations, however. It was published in 1995 and doesn’t contain some of the names parents have given their children in recent decades.
Three characters in the WWI trilogy take their name from historical figures.
Lucretia Steward is named after Lucretia Mott, an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and social reformer who was active during the mid-19th century.
Dorothea Steward is named after Dorothea Dix, a 19th century reformer advocating on the behalf of the mentally ill and poor.
Alice Steward is named after Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest child of Teddy Roosevelt, whom like the fictional Alice had an affinity for fashion and running her mouth.
Because Angel of Mercy was inspired by the My Chemical Romance song “Mama,” two characters were indirectly named after two of the band members. Geoffrey is named after Gerard Way and Frederick “Freddie” is named after Frank Iero.
In both case, I took the first letter of the real man’s first name and found a name in my name book that I liked that started with that same letter.
I used the same method to name Alfred. (Hint: He’s named after a Deadliest Catch captain who served as my “model” for what Alfred looks like.)
So that’s it. Those are the methods I use for naming fiction characters. Do any of them surprise you?