Thursday, April 13, 2006

So What If It's Not Accurate?

Over at Smart Bitches, SB Candy let loose a spectacular mini-rant about naming of characters and how it irks her when writers of historicals get it all wrong.

Now, I will not argue that using modern names in historical romance is a sure-fire way to demonstrate that accuracy is not a priority on your writing to-do list. Gals named McKenzie or Bailey who worry about what the Ton will think if anyone discovers they've left their long, white gloves in Lord Austen's barouche really don't inspire a reader to get lost in the era. Just because you've always wanted a daughter to name Brianna but only had sons doesn't mean it's okay to name a heroine Brianna if she lived any time before 1995.

Also, I'm perfectly understanding that some readers really do want accuracy in their stories. Any kind of anachronism pulls them too far out of the story, and no writer wants to do that. So I do understand that the opinion I'm about to express is entirely my own, and by no means do I intend to negate the thoughts of those who feel differently.

That being said, I do believe there is a line where creative license should be permitted to step in. If one had the energy to go searching, I'm sure that one would quickly learn that the most common male names in, say, the Regency era, might be along the lines of Johh, William, James, Charles, and the like. We'd find a lot of Marys, Annas, Emmas, and so forth. So, if a writer wanted to get it right and name her characters with realistic names per the era in which they live, she'd probably end up with a lot of men named John and women named Mary. Good, solid names, but nothing exciting.

From what I understand, part of the appeal of escaping inside a good book is to explore life beyond the mundane. After all, if real life were interesting enough that we didn't turn to fiction for entertainment, we'd all be thrilled to tears while watching our husbands mow the lawn on Saturdays and near giddy with anticipation over driving the minivan to the nearest Olive Garden on Saturday night, right?

So what's wrong with spicing up a story by giving the characters names that inspire the imagination? Not that a guy named John can't be a total hottie, but I have to admit that when presented with two closed doors, behind one of which is "John" and the other is "Lucien", the choice isn't exactly a tough one as far as which one would be my ideal romance novel hero.

Romance heroes and heroines are supposed to be above the ordinary. Not necessarily over-the-top unique, but something about them is interesting enough to inspire a story that pulls us in and keeps us turning pages. It makes sense to me that such people would have interesting names, names different than the most popular ones that represent reality for the time period.

Besides, the number of names that people used back in the day seems fairly limited. I'm sure every town had a healthy quantity of Johns and Williams. If a writer intends to remain true to the era, I would imagine her characters might get confused with each other.

"Didn't you just love that John from My Wild Heart?"

"Oh, yes, John. It was so sad that his leg got blown off during the Battle of Waterloo."

"No, you're thinking of John from My Savage Love. I'm talking about rakish John. The one who's mother was a big 'ho."

"Wait, you mean John who watched his father get murdered right before his eyes?"

"Nope, that's tortured John from My Tormented Soul. You remember. The one who had sex with Mary in the broom closet."

"Oh, I loooved Mary! She was so spunky."

"No she wasn't. She was one of those blue-stocking types. I think you're thinking of Mary from My Wicked Passion. She was pretty spunky. Or maybe that Mary was the one everyone thought was a courtesan but was actually a virgin even though she'd been married and widowed."

"No, I think the virgin widow was her sister, Anna."

"Whose sister?"

"Mary's. Except, John also had a sister named Anna. She ran off with William."

"William, the guy who became a duke when his brother was killed in a duel?"

"No, William, the one who wanted to be a minister but whose father insisted he become a barrister."

"I thought William was the servant."

"He was. I'm talking about the other William."


Anyway, I guess my point is that I'm willing to sacrifice historical accuracy in the interest of creativity. Certainly, I don't want my Civil War heroine to hop in her Model-T Ford and head off into the sunset, but I can handle a few naming anachronisms without being yanked out of the story. If my entertainment consists of romances that are larger-than-life, which most published romances are, I expect that the heroes and heroines will have names that go beyond the norm of the day.

Because, somehow, I'd be more apt to get the giggles reading about how Henry and Alice got busy than I would if it were Lucien and Isabelle.


Candy Minx said...


i am a reader and a writer who finds names incredibly important in novels. It's not about some kind of accuracy or "historical correctness"(which is a ntion I find qestionable but thats another days topics). I often can recall names of characters in many books. Savannah in Prince of Tides, Ishmael in Moby Dick, Sugar in The Crimson and the White, Lulu and Sailor in Wild At Heart.

I think its amazing in Rmoance literature that actually the name soften are tame. I think it may be because it allows for an immediate relationship with the reader. And the world and emotions in Romance novels are amplified anyways, better to keep novel simple with character names being familiar.

But this may be a big difference between what SOME(not this) readers and critics call low brow and high brow art or literature. But funny how so-called low brow makes the money and so called high brow can't get a publishing deal. Again another topic for another time, heh heh.

If you want to explore names in fiction, the master is Dickens. in fact, i am re-reading Bleak Houseright now, and not only are the names delightful Dickens art, but the novel itself seems to be strangley self conscious(like post modern?!) about names. Some names within its beautiful story and characters are...Krook, Jarndyce,, Boythorn, Jellybys,Carstone...for example.

I beleive really incredible literature and art uses the names to help move the plot and action! This is classic wonderful writing. some avant garde but now modern classic writers have used names in this fashion. Cathy Acker, and Williams Burroughs and Cormac McCarthy come to mind. So does Faulkner.

I have built entire characters in film around a name. I once built a character ont he name Carmelina. It fed my story even.

Historical correctness or acuracy is a writing device, not a neccessity to Romance or any genre of literature. it has become a style. it's device helps certain readers suspend their disbelief, I hope that makes sense on its own as a statement.

I think some of the most challenging and entertaining of novels have some delightful names in amongst the action. Why not use it to your advantage as a storyteller instead of fussing over "accuracy".

Go further with fiction!!!

Candy Minx said...

Oops sorry about my typos.

Kim said...

Honestly, as long as the names are in the realm of possibility, I'm okay with it.

Now if you were going to call the woman Apple or something like that...well, that would be stretching it.

But we all realize that it IS fiction we're reading.

If we're getting really picky, then why don't we focus on basic biological functions?

How is it that the hero and heroine can get it on no matter when despite...well...let's not go there.

Maili said...

The thing is this country thrives on nicknames because, as you already noted, so many people share same names. For ever Peter I know, their nickname is usually Pete, Petey, Loo [Peterloo], Bunny [Peter the rabbit], Terry, Warren, or a variation of their surname.

Also, men are usually known by their surnames, nicknames based on their surnames, or their distinctive character traits, usually coined during their school days [same with women, to come to think of it].

Dickens's naming system works because what he used already existed -- long before he was born. Almost all our kings and queens have nicknames, for instance. Same with historic figures in long history of Great Britain.

That sense of tradition is missing from historical romances, IMO. The idea of giving and using extremely unusual names as first names as the norm is a bit peculiar. :P Don't get me wrong, we did have a share of unusual names in the past, but these usually fit in with period setting of their time.

So if you have a hero named John Millington, why not call him Jack, Ivan, Mill, James, Owen or a name that stemmed from an incident during his childhood? That would make perfect sense - especially if it's unusual - whereas to have his ever-so-English parents naming him Devon would make it too fantastical to be believed.

Sorry about this long useless ramble.

Lynn M said...

True, Maili, the problem of having multiple Johns is really not an issue because last names can easily come into play. Since it's my understanding from the limited research I've done, if a man has a title, his first name is almost never used anyway, so six Johns in a story wouldn't be problematic.

Plus there are nicknames, as you've well pointed out. So I suppose that could be an option. A hero could have a reasonable name - John Wellington - and be given a nickname that allows for some character and creativity to show through.

I suppose my general concern is when people become upset to the point of not reading simply because a writer has taken some liberty with naming conventions. I think this is because I, personally, am not such a stickler for historical accuracy to the minute level that names don't cause me problems if they waiver out of era.

Now, I do admit to many an eye-roll at some of the downright silly names, regardless of whether or not they were accurate. :)

Candy Minx said...

What great posts and thoughts super!

And a good point about many names being nicknames. This ties into all kinds of things, like the rejection of governemnt names(rap hip hop terminology) or the very spiritual aspect of using a different names in other cultures to represent power animals or something along those lines. Also, Malcolm X who knew? I think it would be cool to mix that into a romance novel the idea of rejecting slave names(back to hip hop again riffing on slave names=government names)

Loved reading these thoughts folks!