An interesting discussion on Cate’s Journal and Book Reviews this week got me thinking about character names. I find naming characters both fun and challenging–and at times frustrating. Sometimes a name occurs to me when I first think of a character and seems to suit that character perfectly (Honoria, Val, David, and Simon all worked that way). Charles and Mélanie were actually the names of two secondary characters in an never-published book I wrote with my mom. Playing “what if” with their future inspired “Secrets of a Lady”. I changed a lot of the backstory, but I kept the names. I actually made list of possible alternative names for both of them, but I kept coming back to Charles and Mélanie.

I often make lists of possible names for a character. I usually start by thinking about the character’s parents and what sort of name they would have been likely to choose. I changed the name of Charles and Mélanie’s daughter from Cristina to Jessica because I realized Mélanie was much more likely to name her daughter after a character in a Shakespeare play than after her mother. Charles’s sister began as Beth because her mother was Elizabeth, but then I decided Lady Elizabeth Fraser wouldn’t have named her daughter after herself (and Kenneth Fraser would have shown no interest in the name whatsoever) so she became Diana, but that didn’t work either. Finally I decided that because Elizabeth’s mother was French, she’d have given her daughter a French name. The daughter became Gisèle, which worked right away. Her character didn’t really come into focus until I had the name right either. A couple of other characters in “Beneath a Silent Moon” began with different names as well. Evie Mortimer started out as Jane and Aspasia Newland was Emily. I settled on Evie because her full name is Evelyn, a family name, and Aspasia because her father is a classical scholar who named her after Pericles’s mistress. They too worked much better as characters with the “right” names :-).

After one settles on the right name for a character, there’s the question of how other characters address him or her, a particularly fraught question in an historical novel with myriad forms of address. I once heard Dorothy Dunnett give a talk where she talked about how brilliantly Georgette Heyer used different forms of address to delineate different relationships between characters. For instance, in “These Old Shades”, Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is “Avon” to most of his peers, “Alastair” to his old friends Hugh Davenant and Anthony Merivale (though both call him “Justin” in serious moments), and “Justin” to his brother and sister, not to mention “Satanas” in the whispers of the beau monde and “monseigneur” to Léonie. Dunnett uses this technique beautifully herself with Francis Crawford of Lymond, who is “Lymond” to most, “Mr. Crawford” to some, and also a variety of foreign titles he acquires in the course of his adventures. For someone to call him “Francis”–or for him to sign his given name to a letter–is a sign of great emotional intimacy.

Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley occasionally calls Sergeant Havers “Barbara”, but to my recollection Havers has only called Lynley “Tommy” once in the series so far, in a moment of great danger (I can’t find the book in question, but as I recall, she yells his name as she jumps into the water to save him). For Laurie King’s Holmes and Russell, on the other hand, calling each other by their surnames is almost a sort of private code between them (if they ever called each other “Sherlock” or “Mary” it would a sign that something was seriously wrong, or more likely that they were engaged in some sort of masquerade). Holmes and Watson called each other by their surnames as well, of course, but this would be a usual form of address between two gentlemen in the late nineteenth century. It’s more surprising between a man and a woman, particularly a man and woman who end up married.

The first time I had Charles address Mélanie by name, he just naturally called her “Mel” rather than “Mélanie”. Much farther into writing “Secrets of a Lady”, I realized that it says a lot about the way Charles sees her, which is much more as a comrade and partner in adventure than the delicate, elegant, exotic creature that “Mélanie” conjures up. He pretty much only calls her “Mélanie” when he’s extremely angry or otherwise driven beyond endurance. For a bit in “Secrets of a Lady” he can’t call her anything more intimate than “madam”, then he gets back to “Mel, and eventually “sweetheart”. (Mélanie, on the other hand, defiantly calls Charles “darling” through out the book). Raoul O’Roarke tries to remember to call Charles “Fraser” in acknowledgement of the fact that Charles is now an autonomous adult, but he tends to slip back into the past and call him “Charles”. (The first time being, “For God’s sake, Charles. You’ve known me all your life. Do you really think I’d be party to abducitng a child?”). Raoul never shortens Mélanie’s name to Mel, but he does call her “querida’, an endearment I don’t think he’d use for any other woman. Addison, Charles’s valet, who’s been with him since Oxford and in some ways probably knows him better than anyone, calls him “sir” or “Mr. Fraser”. But Blanca, Mélanie’s maid, who began as more of a friend before their masquerade began, calls her “Mélanie” when they’re alone.

The letters I write for the Fraser Correspondence and the A+ sections in the books bring up a new set of challenges. I have to decide not only how they characters address each other in speech but how they begin their letters. Charles writes to his best friend David with the fairly formal “My dear David” while David’s lover Simon (the playwright involved in Radical politics) address Mélanie was “Melly mine” (Simon, I think, is probably the only person who calls Mélanie “Melly”, again something that came to me when I wrote his dialgoue).

What do you think about character names? Do you notice them as a reader? If you’re a writer, how do you go about choosing them? Any other interesting examples of ways writers use names and forms of address?

I’ll be blogging more about this (with some historical examples) on the History Hoydens on Wednesday. Do stop by. I’ve also just posted this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter to Charles from Lord Quentin another character I had a difficult time naming. I wanted a courtesy title peole could shorten to a one-syllable name. I wrote a whole draft of “Beneath a Silent Moon” before I settled on “Quentin/Quen”.