When naming your characters, do you give any thought to the actual meaning or do they just come to you?
It depends. Sometimes they come to me, sometimes I have to search, sometimes I encounter the name in some unexpected context and it rings like a bell–so insistently that I have to think of a story to go with it. (This is what happened with Aud.) But yes, the first names of my protagonists are carefully considered. I spend less time on their last names.
I don’t know where Marghe’s name came from, exactly. I wanted an ‘ahr’ sound (why, I’ve no idea, but it’s pointless arguing with my subconscious), and at the time I was formulating Ammonite, I was pissed off at the Anglo-Saxonism of science fiction. I had just read a lovely book full of photos of Macau, so decided to make Marghe half Portuguese, half Chinese. So she became Marguerite. Then Marghe. Yes, I know Marguerite is French. But there’s a kind of knot in my brain when it comes to names based on Romance languages. I get them all turned around. (See, for example, Philippe, a minor character in The Blue Place, who should have been Felipe.) I think it’s because I grew up thinking of continental Europe as irresistibly cosmopolitan: everyone speaks everyone else’s language and borrows one another’s proper nouns with insouciance.
Lore, from Slow River, is harder to pin down. Again, I was determined she be a citizen of the world, not the UK or US. All I can say is, I’m (pretty) sure her name has nothing to do with The Lord of the Rings, and that I have a fondness for protagonists with one-syllable names. As for her last name, I had help with that from Ruud van de Kruisweg, of Holland SF. He was interviewing me about Ammonite (my very first email interview, in 1994) and asked about my novel-in-progress. I told him about Lore, including her planned first name. He very politely did not burst out laughing but tactfully suggested that van de Oest might be closer to what I was looking for. I accepted his suggestion gratefully.
Aud’s name, of course, hit me like an arrow between the eyes. It was 1991. I’d just had a dream about this woman who surges off her bed and kills an intruder with a flashlight, and had been idling wondering what kind of person could do that–just kill someone, whap, without hesitation. Frankly I had no idea, but I couldn’t let it go. (I talk about this dream in a radio interview, which you can listen to here.) A few days after this dream I was browsing the stacks of the Gwinnett County (Georgia) Library. I came across a book on Norwegian architecture, which led to an old (circa 1940) Norwegian history text, which mentioned a woman called Aud the Deepminded. Without knowing anything else, I knew I’d found my character’s name. “Aud,” I thought (it rhymes with cloud), “Aud.” And the idea of someone being so remarkable in her own time that she went down in history as The Deepminded fascinated me. Here, I thought, was a formidable person: intellectually, emotionally, and physically. I had an image of a woman whose mind was like a fjord, deep, calm, and cold. I had my character. I’ve no idea where her last name comes from. A guidebook, perhaps.
Hild’s name–no choices there. That’s the name of the historical character I’m writing about. The thing is, that’s the short form of her name; no one knows the long form. Extrapolating from Anglo-Saxon naming conventions of the 7th century, my guess would be Hildeburh, or Hildeswith. But she was known as Hild. Happily for me it’s a good, strong, one-syllable name I can work with.
Generally, though, I’m a bit cavalier about naming secondary characters. My classic example is the tribe of Echraidhe in Ammonite. Their culture is Mongolian. I wanted to use Mongolian names–but couldn’t think of any (this was long, long before the world wide web, a decade before Wikipedia) and was in the white-hot writing place where I can’t stop, can’t stop, not even to do research. So I plugged in ancient Irish names and, well, when I had the first draft the characters had grown so entwined with their names that I couldn’t cut them out without hurting them.
I learnt my lesson. Before even opening the .doc file for Hild, I assembled a lot of research on names: on Brittonic, Angle, Saxon, Kentish/Jute, Frankish, Irish, Pictish and so on naming traditions. So this time I think I’m getting it right–or closer to right than I’ve been before. So, hey, I’m learning.
6 thoughts on “naming characters”
So where did Julia’s name come from? She’s hardly a secondary character. And Victoria Kuiper? Not a secondary character either. They both start out as chance encounters and end up being loved fiercely by Aud the Deep-minded.
My best friend, from age 8 to 11, was Juliette Lyons. I think she had an impact :)
Kick, well, that’s more complicated–in fact, I think I’ll answer this in a separate post.
As far as this research goes, could you point me in the right direction? I'm batting around ideas for a new story, one based in Germanic culture around the time when Beowulf would have been originally composed. Unfortunately, every Google search including the word “name” inevitably brings up innacurate baby name sites.
Well, if you're certain when Beowulf was written you know more than most scholars of that period :)
As for names, go to your local library and enlist the help of the reference librarian. Or call/email their help desk.
:D The library in my area isn't the best, let's just put it that way. I've tried more specific searches, and that's turning up results.
And as for the dating, isn't Beowulf thought to have been composed some time in the 5th or 6th century? No specific date of course, but sometime in that general area.
Nope. Latest scholarship indicates it's more like 9th C. (But the consensus is always changing.) It's very Christian in conception–though a story about the Old Times, i.e. about the times you mention. Just not composed then.
If Beowulf interests you, take a look at this post about it, or this.
BTW, the commenters on the latter post are some of the foremost experts working in the field today. You might enjoy their blogs.
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