Ivan, Ian, Johann, Juan or John?
If your names don't fit the region, era or country, you may lose credibility with the readers
Published: October 1, 2004
|It was a great book--a historical. So why didn't it ring true? It was all in the names. A rose by any other name is still a rose, but a John is not always a John. If he is in Russia, he is an Ivan; if he is in Scotland, he is an Ian; if he is in Germany, he is a Johann, and if he is in Spain, he is known as Juan.|
The aforementioned book was set in Scotland, yet all the names in the book were Welsh: Gwyneth, Meredyth, Dylana and Owain.
There might be an argument on such trivial matters as names, since this is fiction we are discussing. Doesn't writing fiction give license to freedom? Of course it does. Fiction does not have to be true, but it should be accurate. One of the primary goals of a fiction writer is to make their story seem believable. Names can help accomplish this.
Geographical location, even within one country, can also come into play in the choice of characters' names. A debonair young hero living in Hudson Valley, N.Y., might be named William Robert Smythe, III; his counterpart in the hills of Tennessee would be called Billy Bob Smith.
The era in which the story is set also affects the name. A young woman in a contemporary story might be named Jennifer or Jenny, which was among the 10 most popular girls names in the 1970s. But, if you change the setting and the time and an English lord has been betrothed to a Welsh princess, Jennifer becomes Guinivere.
Even within the confines of the United States, the names chosen for someone from Cape Cod in colonial days would be far different from a tour guide on Martha's Vineyard in 2004.
The problem has been identified, but what does an author do to avoid this pitfall? There are several simple sources which are readily available and which make for accurate naming in your book.
The first place to look is in a book of baby names. One that is extremely good for this is The Everything Baby Names Book by Lisa Shaw. It lists names by country, time used, meaning and spelling variations, as well as lists of most popular names and many interesting facts about names.
The second place to check for names is in newspapers from the area where your story is set. These provide not only the country where the name is found, but the specific area as well. Also, the frequency of one particular name shows its popularity.
The third place to look for names is the census. If you are looking in a census of 1850 or later, it will not only provide you with the name of each individual living at any one residence, but it will also tell you what country or state the parents came from.
In addition to names for people, names and locations of towns and natural sites are also important. A "goof" on a seemingly minor point can make a careful reader abort their reading of an otherwise perfectly good book. One romance novel put out several years ago was set on the Minnesota/Wisconsin state border. The river that wound its way through the area, separating the two states, was identified as "the Red River of the North." One quick glance at a map will show you that the river that runs between Minnesota and Wisconsin is the mighty Mississippi; the Red River of the North divides Minnesota from North Dakota. Wrong river, wrong side of Minnesota. One way to avoid this problem is to get a map of the area you are writing about and hang it up above your desk for a constant point of reference.
These facts might seem miniscule and the complaints when they are wrong like nitpicking, but to a careful reader it can mean the making of a good book or one that they can't bring themselves to read. The choice is up to you, the writer.
Yes, even in fiction, names play an important role. Remember the song from the '50s: "Every baby in the cradle seems to get that same old label; every Tom, Dick and Harry's called John."
Janet Elaine Smith has written for many magazines, including Heritage Quest, where she is a contributing editor, and MinnDakota Memories and Mysteries, where she is the associate editor. Four of her novels have been published by FirstPublish, Inc.: Dunnottar, In St. Patrick's Custody, A Christmas Dream and House Call to the Past
--Posted Oct. 1, 2004