Name that character!

joannamaitland6Today, I’m welcoming fellow Romantic Novelists’ Association member Joanna Maitland to talk about naming characters.

After many years publishing Regencies with Harlequin Mills & Boon, Joanna is branching out into new fields as an independent author. With fellow author Sophie Weston, Joanna has just set up Libertà! where readers and writers can meet and share enthusiasms. Joanna hopes to welcome fans, old and new, and readers of all sorts of fiction to the website.

Joanna’s latest Regency ebook novella, His Silken Seduction, takes readers to pre-Waterloo France and the excitement of Napoleon’s Hundred Days. Her second, coming early in 2016, will be a timeslip, Lady In Lace. You can find all her books at

Over to Joanna!

Authors have different ways of naming characters. Some label their key characters hero and heroine until they have finished the first draft, others need names for their characters before they write a word.

Names, for me, are integral to character. Names can even be part of the plot. In my early novel, My Lady Angel, the hero had two names – Frederick, the name used by the father he detested, and Max, the name by which his friends knew him. The difference between the two names, and the personalities that lay behind them, was a crucial thread of the story.

Sometimes, choosing a name doesn’t go particularly well. When I was working on A Regency Invitation, a three-novella joint story with Nicola Cornick and Elizabeth Rolls, I initially called my hero Will. But he hated it. His real name turned out to be Marcus and, once I’d changed it, he happily strode onto the stage and started talking. How did I know that his name was Marcus? I’m not sure. It just bubbled up from my subconscious. And I knew it was right immediately.

All this may suggest that naming characters is a sort of alchemy, a half-magical process where the author negotiates with her characters as if they were real. It can feel like that, I’ll admit, but there’s also quite a lot of routine involved.

I have simple rules:

  • make sure all characters’ names start with a different initial so there’s no chance that the reader will mix them up;
  • try to have first names of different numbers of syllables, especially for hero and heroine – go for Elizabeth and Tom, say, rather than Elizabeth and Christopher;
  • if possible, avoid names that end in -s or -es, like Bess, because the possessive can tie you in knots like “Bess’s best besom” (I broke my own rule with Marcus, I admit, but he insisted!)
  • make sure characters’ names are appropriate for the period of the novel, whether it’s historical or contemporary; the name has to have been in use/in vogue at the time the character was born.

One trick is to check the names that real people of the time were using. You can find them in parish registers, contemporary letters and diaries, newspapers and so on. I tend to rely on my battered old copy of Burke’s Peerage (vintage 1938) where I borrow first names from real people.

There’s part of a random page shown here, for the Frederick family. If you can read the tiny print (click the photo for a larger version), you’ll see that John, the heir to the 5th Baronet, died of wounds received at Aboukir Bay, Egypt, in 1801. Burke’s is full of such fascinating and thought-provoking details.

It can be wise to avoid actual names, especially if you write contemporary stories. Real people do sue! Georgette Heyer use to pore over maps to find obscure place names for her characters. Fownhope (possibly the inspiration for Augustus Fawnhope in The Grand Sophy) is a Herefordshire village, for example. I regularly note down interesting place names from road signs. And you can always modify names, as Heyer did, turning them into something that never existed.

A Warning! If you decide to change Will to Marcus, say, do beware of unintended consequences of Search/Replace. Your beautiful proposal scene, for example, might become something quite odd:

Hero (on bended knee) to heroine: I love you, darling. Marcus you marry me?

Heroine (overcome with joy): Oh, yes! Yes, of course I marcus.


We wish Joanna every success with Libertà!, her new joint venture with fellow author Sophie Weston.
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Connect with Joanna:
Twitter: @LibertaBooks  @joannamaitland @sophiewestonbks

Joanna Maitland’s latest Regency ebook novella, His Silken Seduction, takes readers to pre-Waterloo France and the excitement of Napoleon’s Hundred Days. Available now on Kindle 

His Silken Seduction Cover MEDIUM WEB


Wounded. Abandoned.
In the enemy’s bed.

He’s Wellington’s spy, surviving in war-torn France.
His silk-weaver’s touch is driving him wild.
But she’s the enemy.

Dare he trust her with his life?
Or his heart?




Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA and the Roma Nova box set are now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines…

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