Name Your Historical Fiction Characters Using Real Historic Conventions
The Problem of Authenticity
Writers of historical fiction have to be much more careful than writers of other types of fiction. True, their stories are made up, but the time period in which they are set was a real time period, and it would behoove someone who wants to write historical fiction to know something about the period of time in which they have set their novel. Facts are still facts, and cannot be changed, so a historical fiction writer must be willing to go through a lot of historical research before he/she even starts to put down the first word of the story.
Now, it is true that writers of modern fiction should do a lot of research beforehand to make their stories sound credible. For instance, you wouldn't want to give an English college professor the vocabulary of an eight-year-old. But the reader of modern fiction is much more likely to be forgiving of faux pas in research. After all, people who read historical fiction, as well as people who write it, are interested in history and probably know something about it. Therefore, you must be sure, as the "expert" author, that you have all your facts straight, and that you make your historic world as authentic as you possibly can.
How Does This Need for Authenticity Apply to Naming Your Characters?
There are several identifiable naming conventions that have been used by different societies in the past. True, not every family used these conventions, but most did, or else they wouldn't be called naming conventions.
And even if a particular character's family does not feature prominently in your story, it would be of use to consider these naming conventions in developing a backstory for your character, since fictional characters are much more well-rounded, interesting, and believable when they have a backstory.
Here, I will describe some of the most well-known naming conventions of the 17th,18th, and 19th centuries.
Paying Attention to Historical Naming Conventions Can Help You Puzzle Out Your Character's Family Relationships
English Conventions of the 18th and 19th Centuries
This naming pattern seems to have held true in England during this time period and even earlier. Here is how it worked:
The oldest son was named after his paternal grandfather. The next oldest son was named after his maternal grandfather. The third-born son was named after his father. The fourth son was named after his oldest paternal uncle. The fifth son was either named after his next oldest paternal uncle or his oldest maternal uncle.
So, if you named your eighteenth century English schoolmaster Samuel, and you knew that he was a third-born son, you would also know that his father's name should be Samuel. And, depending on father Samuel's birth order, you can figure out which other relative in the family also had the name Samuel.
A similar pattern held true for females, but it was based on the mother's family.
The oldest daughter was named after her maternal grandmother. The next oldest daughter was named after her paternal grandmother. The third daughter was named after her mother. The fourth-born daughter was named after her mother's oldest sister. And the fifth daughter was named either after her second oldest maternal aunt or her oldest paternal aunt.
So, say I name my female character Jane, and her father has a sister named Jane, but her mother doesn't. I know a few things about the family through this. One, that Jane is the fifth-born daughter. Two, Jane's mother only has one sister. Three, Jane's father's oldest sister is named Jane, although she may or may not be his only sister.
I don't know about you, but thinking up names for my characters is often one of the most time-consuming tasks for me in my writing, so this trick helps cut down that time significantly, especially if I want to include other family members in my story.
18th Century German Naming Conventions: Pattern A
The German Naming Custom is fairly similar ot that of the English, with a few exceptions. First, three naming patterns existed, instead of just one, and all were fairly equally used, depending on each family's personal preferences. Here is how the first pattern commonly went:
The oldest son was named after his paternal grandfather. The second son was named after his maternal grandfather. The third-born son was named after his father. The fourth son was named after his paternal grandfather's father. The fifth son was named after his maternal grandfather's father. The sixth son was named after his paternal grandmother's father. And the seventh-born son was named after his maternal grandmother's father.
A similar pattern was followed for the naming of daughters.The oldest daughter was named after her maternal grandmother. The next oldest daughter was named after her paternal grandmother. The third-born daughter was named after her mother. The fourth daughter was named after her paternal grandfather's mother. The fifth daughter was named after her maternal grandfather's mother. The sixth-born daughter was named after her paternal grandmother's mother. And, finally, the seventh daughter daughter was named after her maternal grandmother's mother.
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18th Century German Naming Conventions: Pattern B
The naming conventions for boys in this pattern is the same as in Pattern A, but the naming pattern for girls differs significantly, like this:
The oldest daughter was named after her maternal grandmother. The second oldest daughter was named after her maternal grandmother. The third daughter was named after her mother. The fourth-born daughter was named after her maternal grandfather's mother, and the fifth daughter was named after her paternal grandfather's mother.
18th Century German Naming Conventions: Pattern C
The third pattern of German naming conventions is much more similar to that of the English naming patterns.
The oldest son was named after his paternal grandfather. The next born son was named after his maternal grandfather. The third son was named after his oldest paternal uncle. The fourth-born son was named after his father.
Similarly, the oldest daughter was named after her paternal grandmother. The second daughter was named after her maternal grandmother. The third-born daughter was named after her oldest maternal aunt. And the fourth daughter was named after her mother.
Some "How to" Resources for Writers of Historical Fiction
Traditional Scottish Naming Patterns
Children in Scots families were often also named after their grandparents.
The oldest son was named after his father's father. The second-born son was named after his mother's father. And the third son was named after his own father.
The oldest daughter was named after either her paternal or maternal grandmother. The next oldest daughter was named after her maternal (or sometimes paternal) grandmother. The third-born daughter was named after her mother.
It is important to note that, in Scots families, this naming pattern started all over again if either parent married someone else and had more children. So, sometimes, half-siblings could end up having the same names.
Naming Conventions in Colonial America
The traditional naming conventions for our colonial predecessors often followed the English pattern listed above, with a few notable exceptions.
Many families chose to give their children names with significant moral connotations, such as Mercy, Patience, Silence, Obedience, Comfort, and Obedience.
Colonists in Virginia and New England also used to give their children (especially boys) surnames as first names.
Many Puritans gave their children Biblical names, preferring these ancient Hebrew and Greek names to the more common English names. The Puritans, after all, were doing everything they could to break away from the old English traditions, which they considered to be unholy.
It was also not unheard of children to be given their mother's maiden name or the surname of close family friends. Finally, parents often tried to honor the dead by giving their children the same name as an older sibling or a relative or family friend who had recently dead.
My Historical Novel
Speaking of family histories, I've just completed my first historical novel, which is the first in a three-part series covering the last 40+ years of a Civil War widow's life. And it's based on the story of my own great-great-great-grandmother, Jane Austin. It's currently available in both paperback and Kindle versions.
Passing the Historical Accuracy Test
By keeping these facts in mind when naming your historical fiction characters, you will be able to pass the historical accuracy test.
Your writing will be more authoritative and impressive to your readers. And you should also find that the characters come alive and share more of their family histories with you while you are writing.
This should make the whole writing process much more enjoyable and profitable for you ... in more ways than one.
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