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Choosing Character Names For Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

Finding the right name for your characters is vitally important to the credibility of your story. People reading this site will probably know Elizabeth the First did not have ladies in waiting called Beyoncé, Kylie and Nikki, and Roman soldiers did not have comrades called Derek and Clive.

I find the internet especially handy for names when I’m working on a new story. I wrote a trilogy of books set in Nelson’s Navy a few years ago and picked my names almost entirely from the brilliant HMS Victory website, which has a complete ship’s role giving the name, nationality, occupation, age and fate of everyone on board at the Battle Of Trafalgar. I mixed and matched, of course, taking a first name here and a surname there, but the end result was a list of names that sounded right for the era: Ben Lovett, Captain Mandeville, Robert Neville, James Kettleby, Tom Shepherd…

Further digging around was needed for various characters from specific parts of the country. I was surprised to discover how many county councils kept lists of local surnames from particular eras, and here I found my main character, Sam Witchall from Norfolk, and another member of the ship’s company, Edmund Ackersley from Lancashire.

I wrote those books for pre and early teens and, tempting as it was to use such marvellous surnames as Button and Onions, I thought they sounded too much like comedy characters. But I made use of other names with a lovely old-world ring:

Burgin, Borthwick, Casewell, Collingwood, Cummins, Mansell, Myers, Osborne.

First names from 200 years ago were much more limited.

Perusing the Victory role, and convict ship roles, which I did for the second book in the navy series, set mainly in New South Wales (now Australia).

Research on did produce the odd curiosity like Jasper, Lancelot and Cornelius, but almost every single name was either biblical or royal: William, John, James, Thomas, Charles, George, Samuel… Elizabeth, Mary, Ruth, Susannah…

Surname was often a class indicator in 18th century Britain. Here are some names from HMS Victory’s role. Guess which lot are the officers and which lot are the ordinary seamen:

Beatty, Ogilvie, Browne

Bagley, Magee, Staples

I don’t think surnames give away class quite so much these days. A double-barrel surname is often an indicator but our British Cabinet have Cable, Moore, Clegg, May and Pickles among them – names that have a pretty neutral class connotation in 21st century Britain, which you couldn’t say about first names such as Lee, Shane, Charles and Rupert.

Fun though they undoubtedly are, I’d feel awkward giving my hero or heroine a name that sounded too peculiar to my younger readers ears. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to call their main character Eustace, Cecil, Archibald, Pansy or Mildred. Those names would reek of mothballs and dreaded visits to old people’s homes for young readers. A lot of children like to imagine themself as the hero in the story they’re reading, so I always pick a name for my main characters that they will find easy to identify with – one that is still ‘cool’ today – Sam, Richard, Robert, Rosie, Lizzie, Bel…


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Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Judith Starkston #

    To get names for my novels set in the Hittite milieu I have to use a website with an onomasticon of all extant names found in the cuneiform tablets at Hittite sites. Then the real job is hunting for ones short enough to be workable

    July 4, 2013
  2. Derek and Clive would make great Romans! Maybe not for YA, though 😉

    July 5, 2013
  3. Paul Dowswell #

    And Itchy and Scratchy!

    Thanks for posting Judith and Jonathan.

    July 5, 2013

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