Guidelines to Choosing Names for Historical Romance Characters

by Linda McLaughlin

Handsome man with rosesIn Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Except Juliet’s name was extremely important. She wasn’t just any Juliet; she was a Capulet, mortal enemies of Romeo’s Montagu family.

As any writer knows, finding the right name for your character is important, esp. the first name. Personal names come with expectations, even the historically improbable ones. Can you imagine Amber St. Claire of Forever Amber as Mary or Nancy? I didn’t think so.  I read that Poppy was one of the names Margaret Mitchell considered for her southern belle before she came up with Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Somehow Poppy O’Hara just doesn’t have the same ring to it! Poppy sounds more like a servant girl.

Names have ethnic, class and sometimes religious connotations. Take Algernon and Reginald, for instance. Not exactly common working-men’s names.

Name stocks vary from country to country and language to language.

What do Sean, Ian and Ivan all have in common? They’re all variants of John, but you wouldn’t name a character Ivan unless he’s from a Slavic country or background. In historical times, the same was true for Sean and Ian. Sean was Irish; Ian Scottish, and historical romances notwithstanding, no upstanding English aristocrat of the past would have allowed his son to be christened Sean or Ian. The priest or vica wouldn’t have allowed it. The parish register would have shown the name as John, as no doubt the registers in Ireland and Scotland did, as well.

In past centuries, the personal name stock was much smaller than it is now, though not necessarily the same. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, saint names were common. The stricter Protestants rejected many saint names in favor of Biblical names, like Hester and Ezekiel, and even more obscure names. They also invented the so-called virtue names: Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, etc.

When choosing names for a historical novel, I look in a book like The New American Dictionary of Baby Names by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling that gives some historical context for the names. Plus, I love the authors’ surnames. I keep thinking it should be Duckling and Gosling, though.

Surnames came into general use in the Middle Ages, and usually come from one of four sources: place of residence, occupation, nickname or patronymics, such as Johnson, Anderson, Davison and Jones. In Scotland, Mac at the beginning of a name means son of. In Ireland it’s Mc or O. Patronymics are common to many European countries. In Wales, surnames reflect the father’s first name, as in Hugh ap Thomas, ap meaning “son of”. Very confusing for genealogists. Some of the The Scandinavian countries also used matronymics for women, ending in dottir. For example, my character Tova Svensdottir in Tova’s Dragon.

When writing an aristocratic character, I look for a less common place name, as the nobility and gentry were usually landed and were likely to take their surname from (or have given it to) the name of their estate. British aristocrats were most likely descended from the Norman invaders and you can find a list of Anglo-Norman names at Wikipedia. Interestingly, Montaigu is one of the names listed.  You can also find lists of British titles at Wikipedia, among other online sources. Burke’s Peerage is one of two definitive guides to the aristocracy, but a full set is extremely expensive (over $800). You might be able to find an older copy at a local library. The other definitive source on the nobility is DeBrett’s Peerage.

Occupational surnames usually indicate humbler origins. Nearly every village had its baker, blacksmith, cooper, carter,  miller and tailer. A few noted exceptions are Stewart, Spencer and Chamberlain, occupational titles of highly placed employees in the royal courts. The royal Stewart ancestors held the title High Steward of Scotland from the 12th century until one Stewart became Robert II 14th century.

Names based on nicknames, originally called bynames, were used to distinguish two people in a village with the same first name. Bynames include handles like Short, Wise, Young and Littlejohn. These were not originally intended as long-term family names but evolved into that.

In the late nineteenth century, Henry Brougham Guppy made a study of British farmers’ surnames as he considered them the most “stay-at-home” group in the county. In 1890 he published Homes of Family Names in Great Britain in which he categorized names by how common or unusual they were. He found that certain names were “peculiar” to primarily one county. Those are referred to as Guppy’s “peculiar” names. His book is now available from Project Gutenburg and Google Books.

American surnames come from all around the world, and provide a great deal more variety for the novelist than other countries.  I became fascinated with names when I was researching my family history. Hunting down my German ancestors was a challenge because the surnames were rarely spelled the same way twice. One of my ancestors started life as Conrad Buchle in Wurttemberg, Germany. A few decades later, after coming to Pennsylvania, the last name of his descendents was Beighley.

When I started writing, I collected every name book I could find that had any value for writing historical romance, and boy, am I glad I did! Most of them are now out of print, but may be available as used books or in your local public or university library.Some of my favorites are below.

Name Sourcebooks:

American Surnames by Elsdon C. Smith, Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009.

Burke’s Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, Burke’s Peerage, 107th Edition 2003. 2018 edition available at Amazon.

A Dictionary of First Names, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, 2nd ed., Oxford Paperback Reference, Oxford University Press, 2006. Hard cover only at Amazon.

The New American Dictionary of Baby Names, Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling, Signet, 1985, 1991. Far better than the average baby name book because it gives some historical context for names. Out of print, but used copies available at Amazon.

New Dictionary Of American Family Names by Elsdon C. Smith, Gramercy Publishing, 1988, out of print but available used at Amazon.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names by E. G. Withycombe, Oxford University Press; First American edition edition 1947, paperback 1986. Out of print, but several editions available used at Amazon.

The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Source Book, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Writer’s Digest Books, 1994.  Available at

Linda McLaughlin