Friday, May 30, 2008

Character names

Naming characters can be tricky business. Once you've got your naming scheme(s) sorted out, you want to find the right one for each character, the one that fits. And I don't like to start writing about a character without having their name fixed firmly in my mind; I know of some writers who use placeholder names if they can't think of the right one straight away, but I'm a fussy oddball who can't. I don't really know what it is, maybe it's because the name is the first bit of the character's identity that the reader usually comes across, and until I know their name, a character feels like a bit like a stranger to me. I'm not sure.

'Course, my work is done for me when it comes to historical figures, like Agricola, Calgacus, or Septimius Severus, whose names I already know. It's naming the fictional characters where the fun starts, especially the main ones. Let me bore you with the workings of my odd mind...

Marcus Valerius Laevinus: Well, "Marcus" was a no-brainer, really. I wanted a simple, recognisably Roman praenomen for my protagonist, and Marcus is a name I happen to like. His nomen (family name) and cognomen (er... other name) came to me after trawling lists of Roman names. I think I settled on "Valerius" because the hero of my earlier fantasy novel was called Finn Valarian, so the sound just struck a nice chord with me. "Laevinus" came after looking for a cognomen which went with Valerius; I just chose the one I liked the sound of best.

Gairea ní Macháir: Gairea's name didn't come to me as easily as Marcus'. The original story I came up with was a simple little love story (I was a right wee romantic back in primary school), so when it came to naming the female lead, I went through my big book o' world mythology, looking for a name from Celtic myth which had connotations of forbidden love. So at first I tried calling her Gráinne. But nooo... apparently she thought it didn't fit (fussy besom), so I chopped and changed letters about until I came up with "Gairea". And I think it suits her better. An un-traditional name for a very un-traditional young woman! Then, once I'd named her father Machar, I got her patronymic.

Cathal mac Comgáill: Cathal's name is perfect for him, and completely by accident, too! I chose it for the sound - it has a noble sort of ring, I think - and didn't pay much attention to its meaning. But when I looked it up, and realised it meant "battle-mighty", I got a pleasant surprise. After all, if there's one thing Cathal keeps reminding everyone of, it's his 133t fightin skillz. :P

Sargaid, meanwhile, got her name completely by accident. I was trying to type the Irish name "Saraid", and somehow managed to get a "g" in there by accident. However, I actually preferred this new name. I like the earthier, more ancient sound of sar-gayd to sa-rad.

Other characters just got their names pinched from other sources: for instance, "Brigionus", the name of one of Marcus' messmates, is a name filched from the Vindolanda letters.

Eilwen daughter of Ygerna: Sometimes, even if I don't immediately know what a character's name is going to be, I somehow know what it begins with. For Eilwen, I knew I wanted a Welsh name beginning with E. "Eilwen" is a recognisably Celtic name. There are some wonderful long and complicated names to be gleaned from Welsh mythology, but for my main characters, I want names which are easily accessible, and "Eilwen" is a simple enough name, which an elegant ring to it which suits her. The standard form of naming in Dark Age British cultures was the patronymic, but since no one knows who Eilwen's father is (oops), I've gone with her mother's name instead. In the Severan novel, she's also remembered by her Roman legal name, Cocceia Eubia. That was the standard naming form for a freedman/woman: the nomen of the former master with their slave name (often Greek) forming the cognomen ("Eubia" was nicked from Aurelia Eubia, a possible freedwoman from Roman Britain).

Marcus Cocceius Firmus: All right, this is an historical name, but I thought I'd throw him in here, since this is one of the rare instances of the name helping to shape the character. My Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary defines the Latin adjective firmus as "firm; strong; steady; valid; bold", which covers his main good points very nicely. He's steadfast, courageous, and self-disciplined. With a name like that, it was hard not to come up with a good, strong protagonist. If the Antonine novel has a hero, it's Firmus. :)

Edarnan son of Gede : This was another one who wanted a name beginning with E. When it comes to my leading Caledonian male characters, I tend to use Pictish names. "Eddarrnonn" is a Pictish name, which might possibly be rendered as *Edarnan/Etharnan. "Edarnan" is a bit easier on the eyes than "Eddarrnonn". It sounded, to me, at least, like the sort of name which would suit a noble, idealistic, capable young man. Which Edarnan is. At the start, anyway. His father's name, Gede, is another Pictish name.

Lucius Aelius Victor is new around here; he's the protagonist of the Severan novel (and will later gain the nickname Argentocoxos - "Silver Foot"). Having grown up as a horse farmer, with family roots in a Moesian veteran community, I wanted a straightforward, down-to-earth name for him. "Lucius" is another common Roman praenomen. I chose "Aelius" as his family name because it's not extravagant, and also due to his background. I wanted his father's family to have been granted Roman citizenship during the first half second century, so I went with Aelius, the nomen of the Emperor Hadrian, and therefore the name the new citizen would have adopted at this time. His cognomen, Victor, was also pinched (I'm a kleptomaniac when it comes to names, lol) from a recently discovered altar dedicated by an Aelius Victor. I liked the sound of the name, and not to mention, the name "Victor" gives him something to live up to, what with him becoming a war-leader and all. Mwaha. (I'll have to find a good reason for the Argentocoxos nickname, for that's what it's going to be here, but that'll come to me when it comes to me.)

So there you have it. There are a number of factors which I take into consideration when naming my characters. Usually I tend to go for names I like the sound of, but there are also names which reflect background and character. It's all about finding the name which fits the character.

...And I have no idea what the point of this post was. The fact that I've finally managed to nail down the names of some characters who were eluding me, and also that's it's three in the morning, might have something to do with it. :)


Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I have my problems coming up with the right name for a character as well. And like you, I need the names to be able to write about them. No Bob 1-4 for me. ;)

Looks like a future post for my blog.

Crystal said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the name Lucius and Marcus...Is that because I can actually pronounce them???lolol! I like Valerius too, even though you have it as Marcus' middle name...I still like it;o) Hope you had a good weekend. btw, when are you moving? started gutting yet?lol! I have ALL DAY!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Gabriele - Good to know I'm not the only one who works that way. I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on the subject.

Crystal - Lol. I love them too. I need to stop giving my characters all the names I like; there'll be none left to give my kids when/if I have them! :D

Valerius isn't Marcus' middle name: it's more like his surname. The standard naming scheme for a Roman man was the praenomen (a forename, though there were only about twelve), a nomen (the family name), and a cognomen (a sort of nickname, though they also tended to be inherited). Then, if you want to give the full Roman name, you also have to include the filiation, and the voting tribe. Marcus' name would appear on legal documents as:

M. Valerius Marci filius tribu Menenia Laevinus

Head-spinning stuff. XD

I move out on August 1. I've decided not to start gutting till I get back from Vindolanda. I'll give myself all of July to get sorted.

Celedë Anthaas said...

I can spend weeks trying to find the correct name for a character, but during NaNo I usually can't be bothered (there's no time, lol). So I end up with Bob and Jeff and Harold. Meh. It's better than giving them names which are correct for the time period but not for the character. And the Bobs and Harolds are mostly unimportant walk-ins anyway... I can't really write about characters who haven't got a proper name either :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Celedë - Yeah, I can imagine that with NaNo you might not have enough time to muck around looking for the perfect name. It can take me months to find the proper name for a character, even a very minor one.

The thought of not knowing a character's name is, for me anyway, as weird as making a friend and never knowing what they're called. Too awkward and impersonal.