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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The name has to match the character. Of course. Just like any story.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.