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.

Just for Fun

How Do You Come Up With Your Character Names?

  • thumb through baby name books
  • name them after people I know
  • use an online name generator
  • some other method
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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

Sun's Parting Ray (Sunset's Hope) (Volume 1)
Sun's Parting Ray (Sunset's Hope) (Volume 1)

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.

More by this Author


Comments 13 comments

amy jane profile image

amy jane 5 years ago from Connecticut

This is an excellent resource - thank you! I recently began work on a novel (during national novel writing month) and although it isn't a historical novel, there are characters from the past that play a crucial role in the plot. It took me hours to figure out just a few of the names and I have several more unnamed characters, so this is very helpful to me.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your hubs!


workingmomwm profile image

workingmomwm 5 years ago from Kentucky, USA Author

Hi, Amy. I'm glad you found the hub helpful. I'm working on a historical novel right now, set in the late 19th century, so these tips aren't all that relevant to my book, although they are helpful for some of the older characters. Still, I've got some ideas for novels set in other time periods, so I know I'll be able to use these tips for those.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors

Workingmomwm, this is fascinating! As an erstwhile genealogist, this makes so much sense. Another thought for your readers is to look at the names of people who resided in the general area for their locality, using some genealogy research tools. The US Census goes way way back and shows the names of families in their family groups. Fascinating stuff and a wonderful hub!


workingmomwm profile image

workingmomwm 5 years ago from Kentucky, USA Author

Glad you found the hub useful, wannabwestern. And thanks for the genealogy tip!


smackins1974 profile image

smackins1974 5 years ago from UK

Wow who would have known so much would have gone into picking names in books from different eras and locations. Very informative hub and so well written.

Sarah


workingmomwm profile image

workingmomwm 5 years ago from Kentucky, USA Author

Thanks, Sarah!


ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

Thanks for the excellent information! I have been toying with a WW2 espionage thriller in my head and this article will certainly help when I go to name the "bad guys" from Germany. Very helpful! You have earned, both, a thumbs up and useful!


workingmomwm profile image

workingmomwm 5 years ago from Kentucky, USA Author

Thanks, TS. Glad I could help! :-)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

These conventions are also supposed to work for family historians when searching for the names of the parents of an ancestor. But it's been my experience that these are not rules carved in stone, especially in families where, for instance, the mother was named Mary, her grandmother was also named Mary, so NO WAY was that darling baby girl going to be named Mary too! (Same for Johns on the male side.)

So were I writing a story set in post-Mayflower New England, I'd have to go for the "morality" names for a girl (Chastity or Mercy) but being a product of the last half of the 20th century I could never, even for historical accuracy, name a female character "Obedience", much less "Silence".

But then I have a genealogy database of 20,000+ names of real people from several countries going back to the 1600s, so I could never run out of historically accurate names for characters! (With that many names over such a long period of time, I can actually tell at a glance which century a person was born in...)

Great hub! Voted up and awesome! ;D


Gulf Coast Sun profile image

Gulf Coast Sun 4 years ago from Gulf of Mexico

Thank you for this great article. I'm in the process of writing historical fiction based out of Florida. My massive research has come up with names of the people in the late 1800's and early to mid 1900's who, depending on which country they were from, have names still pertaining to their ancestry. I too have a massive database of names from my husband doing genealogy the past thirty years. It was from the colorful and true stories of his family going back four generations that has prompt me to start my book. One of his great uncles first name was legally, "Also," and he named his first son, "Also" also. Go figure. His ancestors came from England and Ireland but over time, due to being poor, uneducated and ignorant, they came up with her doozies. Kathleen aka Gulf Coast Sun


Schoolmom24 profile image

Schoolmom24 3 years ago from Oregon

Great info! So much to consider when writing historical fiction with accuracy. I love reading historical fiction but seldom write it. However, I just wrote a very short story as a hub in that genre...it's actually a very, very short story, just a couple pages long so it's more a glimpse of something rather than a storyline, yet accuracy was still important! Voted up!


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

Yes, I totally agree. As I've been writing my Family Saga (1833-present) in the Southern Missouri Ozarks, I've referred to census data for names, both given and surnames, to be sure my primary characters, for sure, are there in that time period and in nearby areas. It is fun research, and adds confidence to family story telling for the period. Thanks for great hub! ;-)


DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

DrBill-WmL-Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

Oh, I see I stopped by earlier, as my "other" self. Guess it would be redundant to talk of my use of census records. I'm a family history and genealogy researcher and writer, as well as a fiction writer... so it is a natural. Hope you are still out there writing for us! ... and yourself! ;-)

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