Hearts Through History Romance Writers

A Rose By Any Other Name

by | February 13, 2010 | 9 comments

A Rose By Any Other Name

When starting a story, one of the things I really put thought into is the names of my characters. And when writing a historical, you want to get names that fit your characters as well as give some authenticity to the time period you’re writing.

Always consider the impact of your characters names. Not just any name will do. Why do you thing Marion Morrison changed his name when he became an actor? For example, a friend of mine was writing a contemporary with a heroine who was supposed to be somewhat of a free spirit, unorganized and dressed in lots of bead and flowing skirts. Now there is nothing wrong with this, but she was having trouble making the character work. She had named the character Taylor. As I pointed out to her, the name and its conations did not match the heroine she was trying to create. So once she changed the characters name to something for in line with the actual character she was creating, the story went much better.

(By the way, the name Marion Morrison used when he started acting in cowboy movies was John Wayne.)

In one of my favorite author’s one book has a heroine named Niema. Now, how do I pronounce that (even if it’s only in my head)? Neigh-ma? Knee-I-ma? Nay-ma? And by the time the author gave me the information on how to pronounce it, I’d been doing it wrong, so every time thereafter, I stumbled over this name, having to think if I was reading/pronouncing it correctly.

So if you character has an unusual name, or one where the spelling doesn’t match the pronunciation, be sure to give the reader a clue as to how they pronounce their name as soon a possible. For example, if your medieval heroine’s name is spelled Brighid (after St. Brighid) you have to let your reader know that it’s most to be pronounced as ‘Bride’. This traditional spelling of Brighid has morphed into the modern Brigitte.

If you’re writing historicals you probably won’t want to call your heroine Tiffany. And while the name Mildred is a nice historical name you might not want to use that either as it will not strike the modern reader’s ear with any harmony. So you have to find that nice middle ground where the name is historical, but easy on the modern ear.

Another thing to remember that many names that are given to females today were traditionally and historically male names. Today a person with the name Ashley is most likely female, but just over a hundred years ago it was a man’s name (remember who Scarlett was in love with at the beginning of Gone With the Wind?). The same goes for the names Stacy, Tracy, Courtney, Terry, Leslie, Shirley. Even in England today you can find men named Beverly and Evelyn.

When I start a story, I look at the character’s background and see if there is a clue there for the name. While writing KENTUCKY GREEN, I knew my hero grew up on the Kentucky frontier. I wanted him to have all the skills of a frontiersman (which would be used in the story), and knew that his father was a half-breed. When you think of the Kentucky frontier the name Daniel Boone always comes to mind. And Boone was known for not being prejudiced against Indians. So I made my hero’s father a hunting companion of Daniel Boone, and so, following the fashion of that time, the hero was named after his father’s friend, and became Dan.

I did push my luck with the heroine in KENTUCKY GREEN, as her name is April (the month she was born). But in the story April functions as spring/light that helps rescue Dan from his dark/winter personality.

If you are lucky, your characters will tell you what their name is. When doing brainstorming on the plot and characters, one of the things you can do is a first person biography or interview of your character. I used this technique when working on COLORADO SILVER, COLORADO GOLD for the hero. The hero ‘told’ me “My name is Samuel Jacob Westmoreland. My mother died when I was born and my father never forgave me for it.” So since his father’s name was Sam also, my hero became known a Wes. The origins of his name are vital to the story and how he relates to the heroine.

For my heroine, I wanted to name her Julie, which wasn’t too likely, so I made her father a fan of Shakespeare, and her name is really Juliette, and her sister Cordelia after Shakespeare characters.

In my WIP (work in progress), the hero’s goal is to reclaim the ranch that his family lost when rustlers killed his father. So for his name, I chose Clay which relates to the earth, which is his goal.

Who are some of your favorite characters? Do you like to read stories where the character have your name? Or the hero your brother’s name?

(and yes, this is my real first name, my dad wouldn’t even spring for Teresa)


  1. Ann Lethbridge

    Hey Terry,
    These are great ideas for naming characters. Have you noticed that while there are not bad choices for females, there is a very limited number of mens first names? So frustrating.
    I also stumble over last names, so I look up last names by county in England and then pick from those. It can take hours, there are so many, but I love it if they talk about their origins, ango-saxon, norman french – it can even give you a bit of family history you didn't expect.
    One thing I do for my men is use one of those surnames as a first name, gives a bit of variety and it can be explained away by the aunt who would only leave the fortune if the baby had her last name. lol
    Great topic

  2. Jannine

    I enjoyed your article, Terry. I didn't know that most names were male based.

    There are several things I note before I buy a book. One is the hero and heroine names. If I can't pronounce them, I don't buy the book. I learned from experience that it made for a long and frustrating read.

  3. Terry Blain

    Good ooment about men's first names, but of course, as you say, you can often give them a surname for a first name.

    One way I look for America first names is on old tumbstones (my family is a great on for visiting the old family cemetaries in the mid-west).

  4. Kathleen Bittner Roth

    Naming my characters is one of my favorite things. They have to feel right first and then I research them. Recently, I attended a funeral in Germany. I scanned the headstones and there was the name that sounded right for a novel I intend to write that takes place during WWII. Driving home on the autobahn, I saw the name three different times, written in small letters on the side of delivery trucks. Took that as a sign!

  5. Cynthia Owens

    Hi Terry, I love naming my characters! Since most of my heroes are Irish, I have a list of Irish names and pick the ones that seem to "fit" that particular character.
    In my first novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow, My heroine is named Siobhan. At first, I wanted to spell it in an anglicized way (Shivaun), but my editor suggested putting in a line about how to pronounce it in the prologue. That pleased me, because I wanted to keep the Irish authenticity while not ocnfusing my readers.
    For non-Irish characters, I have several baby name books which give both the nationality and the origin of first names.

  6. Paty Jager

    Terry, I think hard on my hero and heroine's names, but the secondary character's names just kind of pop up as they do.

  7. Caroline Clemmons

    As Paty said, I give a lot of thought to the names of my hero and heroine, but naming the secondary ones is less time consuming. For women, a Biblical name is always safe. Heroes, though, require a strong name. I prefer one with hard sounds like Derek or Drake. I use a lot of family names, too.

  8. Terry Blain

    Good point about the difference between naming the h/h and the secondary characaters.

    My secondary character seem to spring full blown with their name, while it takes me some time to come up with the correct name for the h/h.

    Cynthia, good for your editor to have you put the 'how to pronounce' — that way you can keep the authenticy.

  9. Lynn Lovegreen

    It's interesting to see where characters names come from, thanks for the blog! In my case, I write Alaskan historical romance with a western feel, so my hero characters have names inspired by western heroes from reality and film. Makes research for names more fun for me too!



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