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Monday, October 25, 2021

The Power and Romance of Names - Lindsay Townsend

Roman gravestone made by Publius Iulius Cosmus for his wife FlaviaIn Ursula le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, names are part of the magic and being of characters, and to discover someone's true name is to gain power over that person.

Names have power and significance in romance, too. If a hero has a bulky, awkward name, do readers empathise with him? If a heroine has an 'old-fashioned' name, does she lose credibility?

I write medieval historical romances, and I find how I name my people vitally important. For instance, in the Anglo-Saxon period, there are many names beginning with E or AE - EDGAR, EDITH, EGBERT, ELDRED, ALFRED. These names have power and meaning - EGBERT means 'Gleaming Sword' - yet they possibly have fallen out of favour. How many heroes are called EGBERT now? ARTHUR is another name that may look old-fashioned to some. The meaning of ARTOS, 'bear' is wonderful to me, though, and made me fall utterly in love with the name again.

I always try to discover if names have meanings and bear those meanings in mind as I write. For example, my heroine in A Knight's Captive is called SUNNIVA, which means Sun Gift. It's a Viking name, still used in parts of Britain. AVERIL is another name I would love to use sometime - it's meaning is 'Wild boar battle maid'. 

I kept with Viking/Anglo-Saxon names in my early medieval romances "The Snow Bride" and "A Summer Bewitchment". At this time, I felt that more Norman names should be used for the Anglo-Norman characters in my stories and as such are an indication of class. After 1066 and the Norman conquest of England, the Anglo-Normans were in charge. My hero and heroine have older names, being part of the native peoples. MAGNUS, my hero has a name which means 'Great' and it's a name that was used by Scandinavian and Orcadian rulers. My heroine, ELFRIDA, has a name meaning 'hidden strength', which I thought appropriate, since she is a powerful witch. Also I wanted the 'Elf' part of her name to be a clue as to her looks and fey character. 

Staying with the northern/Viking theme I called Magnus' and Elfrida's grandson SWEIN. as my Master Cook looks like Magnus and has some of Elfrida's gifts in magic. (To read more, please see my novel "The Master Cook and the Maiden.")

Nicknames can show affection, as Swein's brother does when he calls my burly cook 'Ram', explaining that his sibling gained the nickname after charging into situations as a boy, much like a battering-ram. 

Nicknames can also reveal deliberate cruelty. Eithne, the heroine in my romance "The Viking and the

Pictish Princess" is called BINDWEED by the old woman who takes her in, mocking the child's loss and change in circumstances and dismissing the girl's need for comfort with the glib, "she clings" - like bindweed. Part of the story deals with the recovery of Bindweed's early memories and her true Pictish name, all as part of Eithne rediscovering herself. 

As a historical romance writer I try to use names I feel are appropriate to the period in which I'm writing. Sometimes names can deceive. RICHARD means 'tough ruler' but the Richard in "Sir Conrad and the Christmas Treasure," is revealed to be rather less than kingly!

So names do matter, as a clue to a character's background and nature or as a key to period. I am always filled with admiration for fantasy and science fiction romance writers who devise names. Of course, sometimes names cannot be avoided: I read a good historical war-and-romance novel (The Assyrian by Nicholas Guild) and the names there - all authentic - were very difficult to me: very long and multi-syllabled.

For me, at least, some names are to be avoided!

Do you have favourite names or names with particular meaning?


  1. Fascinating post. I love learning the meaning of names, and I think an anachronistic name can jolt a reader out of a story. Names certainly go in and out of fashion. I always hated mine as it was so popular in Scotland at the time there were always a minimum of two or three in every class. I did have a neighbour called Avril. The only one I've met.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Chrstine.
    Avril is a French name, meaning April
    Averil, I think is older.

  3. Names are o important in an individual's life and and in relation to story characters. Your post was so interesting as you show us the actual meanings of names and the how/why you chose them for your characters. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Such an interesting and important blog, Lindsay. Medieval stories need names that are authentic to the times. I admire how you've looked into the meaning of names so they reflect on your characters. I agree about difficult names making a reader stumble. I can't think of the name right now that had me doing that in a story because even though I'm just reading, I'm still somehow pronouncing the name in my head, so it's good to steer away from pulling a reader out of the story. In my current wip I'm running names through my mind to make the name fit the hero's personality and history and consider what kind of a nickname might be acceptable. It's such a fun exercise, though, finding the right fit.

  5. Like you, names are important to me, both first and last names. They need to fit the time, as much as possible, and yet I try to make them accessible to the reader. Not always an easy job.

    Thought provoking post and I appreciate it. Thanks Doris

  6. Many thanks, Doris, Elizabeth and Ann.
    One of my worst times of naming a character was when I had the change the name of my Italian hero in "Voices in the Dark". I'd called him Michele (Micheal) and thought it nicely warrior-like, but my editor told me I needed to change it since it looked like the female name Michelle to many readers.
    I finally managed by calling him Roberto. For a while he was Michele Roberto in my mind, then Roberto Michele and finally Roberto.
    Good luck with finding your name, Elizabeth