NANP: Names As Characters

Kicking off the fourth week of Names: A New Perspective is author Anne Lyle who has been making waves this year with her debut novel Alchemist of Souls, an awesome alternate history set in Elizabethan London in which explorers have discovered a race of magical beings, the Skraylings, inhabiting the Americas (my review). Like all the debut authors I’ve featured on the blog so far, she is another one to watch out for, one you can expect more awesomeness from. I do have an eARC of her second novel Merchant of Dreams sitting on the laptop waiting to be read and I’m looking forward to it, although it will be a while before I get around to it. Here’s what Anne has to say on the topic of names and characters in her novels.

Names As Characters

by Anne Lyle

When I was asked to contribute a guest post to this series, I was happy to oblige as I’ve always been fascinated by names. Then I realised that I didn’t have much to say about character names in my current series, because the majority of them are real historical figures and the rest are dictated by my desire to be accurate to Elizabethan practices. Of course most of them have meanings if you dig deep enough, but I’m really not that interested in the etymology of characters’ names. Knowing that Ned Faulkner’s name derives from a combination of Old English eadmund (“blessed protector”) and an Anglo-Norman occupation (falconer) tells you absolutely nothing about him as a person (although it may, perhaps, indicate that my subconscious has a twisted sense of humour!). And once you starting thinking about those kind of connections, it’s a slippery slope down to aptronyms, like the ones borne by characters from sixteenth century plays: Touchstone, Quicksilver, Scapethrift and Spendall (all in Eastward Ho, by Chapman, Jonson and Marston). That would work admirably for a humorous novel—the play mentioned is a comedy, after all—but is likely to jar in a more serious work.

Then it occurred to me that the city of London is almost a character in its own right in The Alchemist of Souls—and English place names really do tell you something about their owners. For a start, they reveal the history of our country, as well as the way our ancestors thought about their landscape. The origins of the names reveal the waves of settlement: York (a worn-down version of Eboracum, ultimately from Celtic eburo-, meaning “yew”), Chester (from Latin castrum “legionary encampment”), Oxford (Old English, its meaning still obvious), Corby (from Old Norse, “Kori’s settlement”), and the Vale of Belvoir (Norman French bel voir “beautiful view”). Simply listing those names summons visions of Roman legions marching across the misty wooded landscape, followed centuries later by Saxons with their herds of cattle and Viking leaders with their warbands, and ending with a Norman overlord surveying his new domain from the walls of Belvoir Castle.

At a smaller scale, the names of streets and pubs are equally evocative, and I was able to use a lot of authentic ones in my novel. I was helped in this by The A-Z of Elizabethan London, an enlarged and annotated copy of the Agas map of around 1570. On it one can see the names of streets that can still be found in modern London: Cheapside, Threadneedle Street, Aldgate, St Martin’s Lane. Most of these names were centuries old even in Shakespeare’s day, reflecting the activities of medieval citizens: their crafts, their marketplaces and their churchgoing.

As far as possible, I locate the action of my book in real places, such as Sir Francis Walsingham’s house in Seething Lane. The house itself is long gone and so I have to make up the details, based on my knowledge of Elizabethan town houses (you can visit a beautiful one, Plas Mawr, in Conwy in North Wales), but the street name, comical as it may sound, is genuine—and still there, as a quick search on Google Maps will reveal. The name itself is derived from an Old English word meaning “full of chaff”, which makes sense when you realise that the Cornmarket was nearby.

Not far from Seething Lane is the Tower of London, one of the main locations visited by my characters (not always willingly!). The central keep, the White Tower, dates back to the Norman Conquest, but the surrounding walls and towers were built in the later Middle Ages, and the names of the towers also speak of the castle’s history. The Bloody Tower was originally named the Garden Tower, since there were gardens there long ago (the remnants of which Mal wanders through in one scene), but in the sixteenth century it gained its current name because it was believed to be the tower in which Princes Edward and Richard were murdered by Richard III’s henchmen. At around the same time, the water-gate under St Thomas’s Tower gained the name Traitor’s Gate, because it was the route most often used to admit recently arrested traitors—whose severed heads would later be displayed on the battlements above it.

There are other placenames I did not find a use for. Sixteenth century London included some street names that have long since disappeared, replaced by prim Victorians with something more respectable. These are the names that reflect the more down-to-earth attitude to sex in earlier times. A map of London drawn up in 1720 includes “Puppekirtylane”, “Grope Countlane” and “Bordhawlane”; take into account the non-standard spelling, such as “bord” instead of “bawd”, and you start to see what trade was conducted in these streets! Not that such activities aren’t mentioned in The Alchemist of Souls, but alas I didn’t have any scenes set in brothels.

Names, then, can be incredibly evocative in bringing fictional settings to life. My challenge at the moment is to do the same for the secondary world setting that I’m planning for the books I intend to write after the Night’s Masque trilogy. How do you name a whole world so that it feels as real as our own? I guess I’ll be reporting back in a year or two…


Anne Lyle on Twitter, Facebook, Website.

The next contributor to the series is author Courtney Schafer on 18th October. You can find a full schedule of here.

Posted on October 15, 2012, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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