With all due respect to Auden, proper names are poetry in the raw–the very rawest of applied language, the underpinnings of human identity. However, perhaps because of this inherent authenticity, they are entirely translatable.
Is a heroine who picks a bouquet of primroses inherently different from one who collects rock jasmine or dresses her table with fairy candelabras or hunts androsace occidentalis?
Technically, if one judges by her taste in flowers, no.
But, if her first name were Rose, Jasmine, Fiona, or Andrea, would you see her differently? Is the town of Rosemont intrinsically different than Fairmont; is Rock Creek different than Candlebrook?
Does a primrose by any other name smell as sweet?
Even without reading Charles Dickens‘ The Old Curiosity Shop (which I highly recommend), do you question whether “Sampson Brass” is “an attorney of no good repute” or that his clerk, “Dick Swiveler,” will probably turn on him in the end? Do you visualize “Seth Pecksniff” in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit as a hypocrite? Do you wonder for even one second if “Chevy Slyme” and “Montague Tigg” are petty criminals and con men, or that a change of name to “Tigg Montague” is a ruse? But Dickens, one could argue, was masterful at writing “caricatures,” of which the name was only a part. There may never be another writer as good at this as he.
However, on a more modern note, from an author I suspect took a cue from him, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is a wizard of naming (pardon the pun). “Harry Potter” is a bit pedestrian, as are, frankly, “Hermione Granger” and “Ron Weasley,” but most importantly, they are at once typically English and benign; they pose no visible and immediate threat to the reader’s sensibilities. Their heroism exemplifies what anyone can accomplish. But can “Neville Longbottom” be anything other than well-intentioned, but foolish? Can “Draco Malfoy” be anything but nasty? Is “Severus” not a bit of a clue that Snape might be living two lives? Does “Tom Riddle” becoming “Lord Voldemort” not evoke the question of the benign turning to the malevolent?
I try, with some success, to model my characters’ names after their—well—characters, and sometimes their arc. Without any major spoilers, some examples:
- Harry Wentworth in Blind Tribute starts in his childhood in the early 1800s as Palmer Harrold Wentworth III (Harrold with two R’s, for old-fashioned flavor), known to friends as Palmer. During his career as a respected journalist, he uses the pen name P.H. Wentworth III, but when he loses all his reasons for formality, he becomes simply Harry Wentworth. (This hero. I admit, was named purely for the initials P.H.W., in honor of my great-great uncle, Percival Huntington Whaley [P.H. Whaley to readers, or Percy to friends], after whom he was modeled.)
- In Royal Regard, I’ve done my best to make the hero and villain immediately identifiable by name: Nicholas Northope, Duke of Wellbridge and Adolph Fouret, le duc de Malbourne. The secondary hero turns from Lord Humphrey to Lord Hamersby when he is elevated from Baron to Earl. My hope is you know instinctively that his power and influence have been compounded.
- What does the name Kali Matai invoke in Le Deessé Noire: The Black Goddess? Do you need to be told the roles Hamish LaRue, Nigel Pate, and Sutcliff Birchbright, the Earl of Thornfield, might play in her life? And when Schuyler Gildeforte, Lord Fitzmarten, becomes the Marquess of Coventon, what do you think happens to his place in the story?
In terms of setting, for me, the same sorts of naming conventions apply. Other than landmarks or well-known places, like London, Philadelphia, or Brooklyn, New York, I do my best not to use actual place names, especially in areas I haven’t visited.
I used a few real places in Royal Regard—London and Middleton-on-Teesdale, most notably—but the new series is set in Nordhamstile, Geddirick, Cordene, and Hyre-on-Lampley, all English towns and villages that never existed. In Blind Tribute, there are no real plantation names. Rather, Riverwood, Vista Point, and Teller Road hold center stage in the narrative.
There are many reason for choosing the names of characters or the settings in which you place them, but an enormous historical precedent for allowing the names to tell at least a small part of the story. In my case, just in the writing of this blog entry, I have named the heroines of four upcoming novels—and, consequently, discovered their temperaments. The only question that remains: will Rose, Jasmine, Fiona, or Andrea become the true love of Duncan, Cecil, Isaac, or Gerald?
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Some (Regency) naming resources that I just love:
Diane Gaston: What Is In A Name?
Jo Beverly Regency Names
Peerages in Order of Precedence (This is a great site for pulling apart pieces of names to create new nobles from thin air.)
List of generic forms in place names in the United Kingdom and Ireland (Same here, but for places, not people)