We writers can learn to compose better by reading the work of recognized authors. One of my favorites is Jane Austen. Lately I’ve been thinking about the names Austen uses, and what I can learn about naming my own fictional characters from her novels.
Austen (1775-1816), chooses names from common English first names for her main male characters such as Charles Bingley (Pride and Prejudice), Charles Musgrove Sr. and Jr. and Charles Hayter (Persuasion); John Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, and John Willoughby (Sense and Sensibility) and John Knightly (Emma); William Collins, Sir William Lucas, and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and William Elliot (Persuasion); and George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice) and George Knightly (Emma).
Similarly, Austen reuses common names of women for important characters: Elizabeth Elliot (Persuasion) and Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Mary Elliot Musgrove (Persuasion), Mary Parker (Sanditon), Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), and Mary Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Kitty Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice); Jane Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) and Jane Fairfax (Emma); Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) and Charlotte Heywood (Sanditon); Georgiana Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Georgiana Lamb (Sanditon); Anne Taylor Weston (Emma) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion).
Why does Austen repeat the same names when so many others exist? Tradition is one reason. Austen writes about “three or four families in a country village” where traditional values are shown by fathers passing down names to their sons and mothers to their daughters. Names hold communities together.
(I am reminded of the naming tradition in the Irish hamlets my grandparents came from. Children would be known by their own first name as well as their father’s and grandfather’s names. I would have been known as Kathy Tommy Johnny.)
Love of family is another reason Austen repeats names of characters within a family. Isabella Knightly (Emma) names her children Henry (after her father), John (after her husband), Bella (perhaps after her mother), Emma (after her sister), and George (after her brother-in-law). Characters’ respect for the royal family is another reason for choosing names. Many men in Austen’s books are named George. (George I, George II, and George III all served as kings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Austen was writing.)
Sometimes Austen shows who the outliers are in her books by giving them unusual names, such as Augusta Elton. Women of fashion are named newer names such as Louisa, Caroline and Lydia.
Almost none of Austen’s characters are known by nicknames. Elizabeth Bennett (Lizzy, Eliza) and her sister, Kitty, are exceptions. The novels come from a time when people addressed each other by their family names (Mr. Collins, Mrs. Dashwood) or by their titles (Sir William, Lady Catherine). In a culture of such formality, nicknames were used only at home, and not always then.
In the months before her death in 1816, Austen began Sanditon, a novel set in a fictitious seaside resort which was literally financed and built by characters who come from elsewhere and are not bound by tradition. For this book, Austen breaks with the traditional names she uses in her earlier books and gives many of her characters names she hasn’t used before such as Clara, Esther, Arthur, and Sidney. The names seem to say change.
What worked for Austen might not work for us. But what we can learn is that none of her characters are named randomly. The name of each character serves a purpose.
For more information see http://www.JASNA for an article in issue 19 of Persuasions by Susannah Fullerton as well as several online articles.