What’s in a Character Name? Part II, Last Names

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(Updated from My Book: What’s in a Name?)

A friend, who worked for an intelligence organization, once told me that among her tasks, she created aliases (a.k.a., pseudonyms, fake names). Her source? The yellow pages.

While I’ve yet to call up the friends in Paris and ask them to ship over the latest phone directory, it’s tempting as last names proved especially complicated for my novel. I’ve primarily tackled those of the hero, heroine, and villain (so far).

I found the Behind the Name website particularly helpful in my quest for character last names.

My personal criteria for the last names in this novel: they should convey meaning, they should be pronounceable, they should not intentionally be those of real people, and they must be francophone or at least make sense as a francophone name for a novel set in 18th century Paris. The exception to that last point of course is an Englishman who makes some peripheral appearances; I’ve chosen Cumbernauld as his surname because it just sounds so blasted British!

Along the lines of conveying meaning, I don’t necessarily mean every surname in my writing is symbolic, but it did give me a place from which to start. For my hero, who is intimately familiar with death, I looked up gods and heroes of the underworld, and then I focused on those with potential to be combined with a francophone ending.

But, the last name I originally tried on my hero became a tongue twister when spoken aloud and especially when combined with his first name (not that it’s likely to happen often). I sounded a little pretentious when I read it during my writing group though and that prompted an adjustment.

Adding a personal twist, I used a variation of a family surname for my heroine. I don’t believe anyone in my family would mind or particularly notice but as my story takes place in an actual setting and includes inspiration from some real people; I wish not to offend other families by stealing their names.

The majority of the effort (mental of course) involved ensuring the appropriateness of the surnames to my setting.

In this novel, set during the 1789 French Revolution, nobility and association with it becomes a deadly identifier. I was concerned that any names with de, de la, du, or variations would indicate nobility. That’s not exclusively the case; calling someone de Paris simply indicates that person is from Paris. That said, during the time period, many did remove the particle (de, etc.) from their name to avoid affiliation with the doomed nobility, which does influence one of the surnames of the story.

Finally, a word about endings… I found myself reaching into my personal knowledge, and researching examples, for name construction. French names have some standard endings, not a one of which seems to be -th.

The End –eth.

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"Words without thoughts never to heaven go." ~Shakespeare

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