Naming Classical Greek characters for a modern world

I've been working on the characters for my third book, which raises the interesting problem of how I name them.

About 70% of my characters were real, historical people. I don't get a choice on their names.

The remaining 30% present me with a fun challenge. I expect every writer will tell you names matter a lot. If the name doesn't feel right then the character won't gel for you. In addition I have the problem of having to pick valid Classical Greek names that also sound right and match the character for a modern English reader.

After some hits and misses I've developed a set of basic rules:
  1. I only pick names which were definitely in use. This means trawling books of inscriptions and lists of people and reading classics. I've built an excellent collection of lists.

  2. Check the provenance. Just to make it more fun, there were names used in some regions of Greece which you would not have heard in other parts. Also fashions changed over time. I had to give up the name Alcmene for one character because it was the name of the mother of Heracles and out of fashion by Classical times.

  3. The name has to be readable! Some Greeks had unbelievably long names. Out they go. Of course if it was a real person I'm stuck, but even then there are ways around. The Greek habit of using nicknames comes to the rescue. For example, the famous General and arch-conservative Cimon named one of his sons Lacedaemonius. No, I don't want to read that mess of letters either. You won't have to, because I filter out such names.

  4. The name has to be pronouncable in English. A normal human has to be able to look at the spelling and say the name without effort. I'm sure you can read Diotima with ease. You may not sound like a Classical Greek when you do it (and nor do I), but you have a sound value that works.

  5. The name has to match the character. Of course. Just like any story.

  6. To the extent possible, the names should start with different letters, or at least with different prefixes. The Greek habit of using a quite small pool of words arranged in different combinations to create names makes this impossible to follow with any consistency, but I try. At least I don't have to deal with the Roman situation where multiple people in a family had exactly the same name. Fools, didn't they realise people would be writing stories about them?

  7. Check to make sure the name was not used by a real person who might become a character. The first name I chose for Diotima's Mum was Elpinice. I loved it, except it turned out that was the name of the wife of Callias, who most emphatically makes an appearance, and also the name of the wife of Thucydides. Bummer. I've lost a few names that way.

  8. Really important characters get a modern name. Nicolaos is the modern Nicholas. In fact the Nicolaos form is still used to this day, and the for-real St Nicolaos of later Christmas fame spelt his name this way. I have a (small) pool of Classical Greek names which are almost identical to modern English ones. I only dip into that pool on special occasions.

  9. Cameo characters and spear carriers (often literally) are allowed to break all these rules. So when you see someone with a long, unpronouncable name you know they're not important. Or they're about to die. Or they're a real person and I didn't have a choice. But you don't know which of those three is the case.

6 comments:

Shadows said...

Ha on the Roman names, yes they had maddening habits such as being COMPLETELY unoriginal. Thanks for the insider's view on how you are the awesome historical fiction writer. ;)

Jinx said...

Fun! Naming characters is one of my favorite things! The names I pick usually have a meaning behind them that suits the characters, but yes, like you I've done a lot of research, except mine ends up in the Celtic realm. =)

Awesome post, Gary. Thanks for the insight on how you name your characters.

Mimzy said...

I still haven't read the first book and you're already on book three... Le sigh.

Be sure to tell us when pre-orders start!

Barrie said...

You are so detail oriented. Very cool.

Joanna said...

Seriously, detail-oriented. But you need to be with historicals! And dare I admit how much these details please the nerd that I am???

Gary Corby said...

If you think this is detail oriented, wait til you see the next post. I'm going to describe what happens in a piece of book research.

A lot of the interest in historicals is giving people a feel for what life was like back then. You can't do that if you don't know yourself!

Of course you don't dare let the details take over in the book. Above all else, you have to tell a fun story. This blog is where I relate the research that I can only mention in passing in a story.