Naming characters in historical fiction

Character names have been a popular subject in recent months. Way back in January, XKCD wrote this post on the statistics of baby names. Then there was this awesome post (one of two) by Jamie Adair, on why George RR Martin chose certain names for characters in Game of Thrones.  And then I spotted this video by Cracked:

So it seems that names are a big deal right now. I figured, particularly as I spent one of my previous posts absolutely trashing ‘Vikings’ for its choice of character names, it might be appropriate to look at some supposedly historical character names.

Names in The Eagle

The first character I want to discuss is from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, which was recently released as the surprisingly good movie; The Eagle. The hero of the story is Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, and in the film he is portrayed by Channing Tatum.

Jamie Bell, Mark Strong and Channing Tatum as Marcus Flavius Aquila

Jamie Bell, Mark Strong and Channing Tatum as Marcus Flavius Aquila

I have got beef with this name. It’s not that it’s a terribly bad name. Instead, rather like the ‘Captain John C. Shepherd Christ’, his name has certain connotations that just seem a bit too obvious. ‘Marcus’ is one of the most Roman names that also has biblical connotations. ‘Flavius’ is a clear nod to the Flavian dynasty of emperors, who ruled the empire around 100 years before this story was set. I actually have one issue with this, because Marcus’s father is a Legate. I am not convinced that the Roman government would give a member of a previous ruling dynasty command of a legion. Maybe that’s just me though.

But my real problem is the cognomen ‘Aquila’. This literally means ‘Eagle’. This name did exist at the time, but when your book is all about a guy going to find an Eagle, calling him ‘Eagle’, albeit in Latin, seems a bit cheap. The trouble is; since The Life of Brian, giving Roman characters names that foreshadow their role has become a bit of a joke. Now, I appreciate that the book was published in the ’50s, a long time before The Life of Brian, but the subsequent BBC radio drama and the film both came after. One tweak is all I’m asking, here.

Names in Assassin’s Creed

But let’s mix things up a bit here. What about the assassins of Assassin’s Creed? Sure, the series do reference a lot of real historical characters. Sometimes the hero is just bouncing between them, but the heroes are all entirely fictional. The first assassin you play as is Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. In Arabic this apparently means ‘the bird son of no one’. I don’t speak Arabic, but even I know that ‘Alt’ has certain connotations. In Germanic languages it means ‘other’ – as in ‘alternative’. In Romantic languages it suggests heights – as in ‘altitude’ – I also know this because my Uni’s motto was ‘per ardua ad alta'; ‘through hard work, great heights are achieved’.

Altaïr

A graphic illustration of Altaïr engaging in his favourite pastime

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Altaïr is an ‘other’. He is radically different from the less-well-rendered civilians that inhabit his world. He also likes climbing. He *really* likes climbing. Plus heights. As long as there is a well-placed haystack at the bottom of his climb, he has absolutely no fear of heights. I might be stretching the point here, but I think that Altaïr also sounds a bit like ‘ulterior’, which, given that he is an assassin, may be fitting. It may also be worth mentioning that the second main character, Ezio, goes on to have a daughter, named Flavia. So there’s your segue.

Names in Oscar Wilde

While looking for a third example – and deciding not to include Asterix and company – I came across this, by Listverse. The infamous Dorian Gray is apparently based on John Gray; an acquaintance of Wilde’s. The first name change is possibly a reference to the Dorian Greeks (as opposed to the Ionians) who, yes, liked to have their way with teenage boys. There is also an undertone of this in the book, so this might be a deliberate connotation.

Referencing the Dorians may also be a less subtle way of explaining how cultured the main character is. The book came out in 1891, near the peak of the NeoClassical period. Wilde’s readers would’ve known the difference between a Doric and an Ionic column, but few of them would have had the balls to name their child after the classical cultures. Biblical names, such as ‘John’, were all the rage but Dorian Gray is a stranger animal and the reader is meant to know it.

For what it’s worth

I can’t hate authors too much for using these tricks. I once read a statistic that said something like 10% of all women’s names during the Tudor period can be accounted for by Henry VIII’s wives, and even then there are only three different Christian names. Don’t quote me on this one, and if you do know the real statistic, I would love to read it. My point is that historical names (particularly if they come from the Bible) are very common. It is quite hard to make a character seem ‘of that era’, and when you take the generation gap into consideration, it can be particularly tough to place your hero.

Character names can give a subtle indication of who that person is and where they are going. Far more subtle that most visual descriptions. As someone who has never named anything more significant than a guinea pig, I’m probably not the person to talk about naming real-live tiny human beings, but I think that many parents pick a name that they think will reflect who that person is, or who they hope that person will become. Those who create fictional characters do the same thing, with the added complication that their character must seem at home in the world around them. We know the past better than we know the future our children will grow up in.

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2 thoughts on “Naming characters in historical fiction

  1. you need to read Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature on the internet archive. https://archive.org/stream/curiositiesofpur00bardrich#page/n7/mode/2up
    My favorite section is The Pet Name Epoch in England. Lists the “pet name” derivatives– like “-kin” or “-let.” Then the double terminatives, stack up two pet names. Anyone who has thrown their hands in the air in despair when one character in a Russian novel has 7 different nicknames will enjoy this.

    During the Reformation, children were named from the Hebrew bible, through Cromwell’s time the Old Testament was favored, and then finally on page 117 we get to the Puritan Eccentricities– naming children for pious admonitions or godly ejaculations: More-fruit, Faint-not, Sorry-for-sin, Hate-evil.

    This is primary source history–taken from parish registers. The author has a couple of books with “curiousity” in the title. Worth reading.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Some of those pious names still exist in the form of ‘Honor’, ‘Grace’, ‘Joy’, etc. I have seen some stranger names in that category before, but nothing on the level of ‘Sorry-for-sin’. Damn, imagine being saddled for life with that!

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