I recently came across this startling sentence from the classic historical novel Johnny Tremain, which is set during the Revolutionary War. It’s a description of the main character’s friend at a dance: “All the Lindas and Betsys, Pollys, Peggys, and Sallys of Lexington were clamoring to stand up with him.” At first this sentence seems perfectly acceptable, but take a close look at it – can you tell what I found so jarring?
Betsy, Peggy, and Sally all strike me as common 18th century names, but Linda really does not. However, it was a very common name when Johnny Tremain was written (1944), so I have a feeling that’s how it snuck in. To be honest, I’m a little disappointed with the author for including what seems like such an anachronism in an otherwise well-researched book, but I did learn something important from her slipup: Always be conscious of what you name your characters, even the minor ones.
People’s names and how they’re chosen say a lot about a given culture, and giving your characters names that accurately reflect the time period you’re writing about is another way to make your setting richer. Were names chosen from the Bible? From words that have positive connotations in that culture’s native language? Look at inscriptions, censuses, birth and baptismal records. (And if your novel takes place in 20th century America, the Social Security Administration has lists of the 1000 most popular baby names for every year since 1880.) But please, don’t take a name that’s popular today and give it to a Puritan child – unless it’s that rare name that can survive the ages.
How do you choose names for your characters? Have you ever run across a name in a historical novel that left you scratching your head?
Melissa Luttman is Associate Editor for Young Adult History/Historical Fiction at Wonders & Marvels.