All the characters in a novel need to have names. Generally speaking they need to have names that readers will recognise as names and be able to pronounce. For minor characters it might be possible to get away with labels (the guard, the governor, the nurse) but for your main characters a real name is essential. As I’ve mentioned before, names are handles which allow readers – but also the writer – to get a grip on a character. They are also boxes that contain information about the character. Some of this information will derive from the name itself, but most you will add when you introduce the character and as you develop the story and give the character room to act. If you’ve done this successfully, when your character’s name comes up further on in the story your reader will associate a whole slew of information with the character which you won’t need to repeat. So choosing names for your characters – especially for your key characters – is important.

Sometimes names come very easily, sometimes it takes a long time to find them. Last week, my fellow Blogg52er Anna Hellqvist took up this issue and described how long it took her to find the name of one of her characters. I’ve had a similar problem.

In the first part of Elin’s Story I needed an extra point of view character who would be a bit older, more knowing and stand to one side of my heroine. This character offers an alternative perspective on events that otherwise come mediated through Elin. The character also provides a critical view of Elin herself. The character needs to be very close to Elin and this meant I had to make her female and put her into a very similar position, allowing her to share much of Elin’s experiences.

As I am writing an historical novel and my cast of characters includes “real” people, I already have a list of names I have to use. This is both an advantage and a bit of a straitjacket. The historical Elin travelled from Sweden to England in the company of Princess Cecilia and the names of almost all the company are in the historical record. Arriving in London the Princess and her women made an impression and are described – at least, their dresses are described – by eyewitnesses. The Princess had six women in her entourage. Elin was one, and four of the others are named, but it was the unnamed sixth that caught my eye. She would be my extra p.o.v. character.

But what to call her?

I already had an idea of her personality. I had decided she resembled the character of Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Becky is a subsidiary character and not a particularly attractive one, but she is very astute, very sharp (and so we see Thackeray also choosing his characters’ names with care). Many people find Becky more memorable than Vanity Fair’s principal female character, Amelia. Obviously I don’t want to create a subsidiary character that is more engaging than Elin, but Elin will not be modelled on Amelia. However I do want some of Becky’s acidity.

My first thought was to call my character Rebecca, but a bit of research showed me that this name did not become common as a Christian name until the 1600s. My novel is set in the middle of the 1500s and this character had to have been born in the 1540s. My back story for her gives her an uncertain ancestry, but not a Jewish ancestry. Rebecca was simply not possible.

Popular Swedish women’s names of the period were Kristina, Anna, Margarita, Birgitta and their variants – indeed, among the Princess’s women I already had two Kristinas, one Anna and one Brita. I could have gone for something more exotic – I considered a Polish name or a Dutch name – but eventually I decided I needed a name that was plausible and did not draw attention to itself. I settled on Johanna.

Johanna has a similar biblical quality to Rebecca but is a possible Christian name in the period, perhaps especially in Germany. It wasn’t too far removed from Anna but far enough for there not to be a confusion. (I was already trying to find a way of distinguishing the two Kristinas and didn’t want to go out of my way to create a similar problem.) Johanna it was, and she has grown into her name very nicely.

Johanna is an orphan. She was a ward of the court of King Sigismund of Poland and placed by the King as a maid in the court of his sister Katarina. This is the Princess known to Swedish history as Katarina Jagellonica. In 1562 Katarina married Johan, Duke of Finland, and took her women with her to Åbo. Following Duke Johan’s arrest and imprisonment for treason against his brother King Erik XIV in 1563, Princess Katarina was interned with him and her entourage was forcibly reduced. Some were sent home to Poland, others were “redistributed”. Johanna was added to Princess Cecilia’s court.

A first name is not enough however. At this period in Sweden almost everybody, including aristocrats, identifies themselves with their given Christian name and their patronym – their father’s name. So my heroine is Elin Ulfsdotter, her father was Ulf Henriksson and her mother was Agnes Knutsdotter. Even the Princess Cecilia might be called Cecilia Gustavsdotter after her father King Gustav Eriksson.

Although Johanna’s father was a mercenary who fought for various German princes before taking service with King Sigismund in Poland, Johanna claims he was a descendant of the Norse Earls of Orkney. This means she can also reasonably follow Scandinavian practice. She calls herself Jarlsdotter.

It is an open question whether her father was actually called Jarl or was indeed descended from the Orkney Earls. Johanna tells different stories about him, some of which don’t seem to add up. When challenged she usually turns the question back on the questioner, but sometimes she admits that she was very young when her father died. She has no memory of her mother.

Even though 16th century Swedish aristocrats commonly use their first names and patronyms, they were still very conscious of their membership of certain families. Family relationships were the social networks of the age – a source of pride, assurance, influence and aid. Princess Cecilia was very proud of her family name, Vasa. When Ulf Henriksson died leaving his wife Agnes Knutsdotter to take care of six children under the age of 18 – and four of them girls – Agnes fell back on her family connections. She was a member of the Lillie family and Ulf a member of the Bååt. It was almost certainly through these connections that Agnes was able to place Elin as a maid at the court of Princess Cecilia.

Johanna has no family connections in Sweden, she cannot call on her family for help but must live by her wits. However, she must still have a family name to be proud of and use from time to time to underline her claim to be an aristocrat.

Having been thwarted in my original plan to link Johanna’s character to Becky Sharp with the same Christian name, I decided to explore the possibility of giving her a familial connection instead. I decided that Johanna’s family name would be some variant on sharp. One modern Swedish word for sharp is vass (it can also mean reed), in Icelandic and Faroese – the two languages closest to Norn, the dialect of Orkney – I find hvass, hvassi and vassur. I decided to make Johanna a member of the Vassi family. Vassi seems just about possible as a family name (though I’ve not been able to find it anywhere). It also seems a bit made up. I think it suits Johanna.

And so, I present to you Johanna Jarlsdotter Vassi!


The picture of Johanna on this page started life as the 1525/1526 portrait of Sibylle von Cleve als Braut by Lucas Cranach the elder reproduced from the copy on Wikimedia.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

What’s in a name?

Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Mortensen

I was watching an episode of NCIS, the American criminal series that revolves around the US Naval Criminal Investigation Service, and they were talking about an enemy agent called Viggo. “Ah,” someone says on hearing the name. “A Russian.” And indeed it turns out this character is a Russian. I suppose for an American the name Viggo may sound Slavic, but if you happen to know Viggo is an ancient Norse name and that it’s still used in parts of Scandinavia, then it’s sudden identification as Russian is mystifying. It also destroys any suspension of disbelief you may have built up in respect of the story you’re following. Certainly I was unable to watch the offending NCIS episode to the end. (Or at least, the misuse of the name is the only thing I can remember about it.)

This would be simply a silly story if it weren’t for the fact that only a week or so after hearing Viggo attributed as a matter of course to a Russian, I was proofreading the beginning of a thriller by another wannabe writer and blow me down if I didn’t find another Russian baddie called Viggo.

What is it about Viggo that is getting English writers to ascribe it to evil Slavs?

The only answer I can find is that the film actor Viggo Mortensen played the role of a Russian Mafioso in David Cronenberg’s film Eastern Promises.

I’m going to guess that Eastern Promises made such a big impression on certain English-speaking thriller writers that they linked Viggo Mortensen with his character in the film (who was actually called Nikolai) and without any further research decided: Damn it, Viggo must be a Russian mobster!

It doesn’t actually take a great deal of effort to discover that Viggo Mortensen himself is half-Danish, half-American, but these are – perhaps – details too fine to trouble certain creative brains.

And yet they should be.

Choosing the right name is one of the key elements in building up a fictional character. When you name a character, that name is your label on the character. It’s the quick reference tag you’re going to use to conjure up in your reader’s mind as well as your own a picture of the character whenever you refer to him or her. It’s the handle your reader will grasp to follow the character through your story.

If you make the mistake of giving the character an improbable name (without having a likely reason why they got it), then you are setting your character up to trip your readers into disbelief. Not all readers, of course, but why would you spoil your writing for more readers than you can help?

ABBA Angetha Fältskog
ABBA Angetha Fältskog
Actually, if you are writing a story set in the present and in a society in which you feel at home, then any name you think works probably does. The problems come when you move out of your comfort zone. To give you another Scandi-flavoured example. Many, many English writers if invited to name a Swedish female character will plump for “Agnetha” or “Ingrid”. A wild guess: the first is down to Agnetha Fältskog, the blonde one from Abba, the second to Ingrid Bergman. But as any Swede knows, Agnetha is a rather unusual Swedish woman’s name. According to Statistics Sweden just 609 women in the whole population use it as their first name. The more common spelling, Agneta, is only used as a first name by about 18,000 (though another 16,000 have it as a second name). As for Ingrid, well, that’s a good deal more popular: just under 50,000 women have it as their first name.

Even so, how likely is it that a modern young Swedish beauty would be called Ingrid? (All Swedish women in books by hetero-Anglo male writers are always young and beautiful by the way. It’s axiomatic.) Of all the Ingrids in Sweden today, at least 47,500 were born before 1960. In the last 16 years only just over 1000 little girls have been named Ingrid, but few of them are older than about 8. It’s not impossible that a nubile Swedish beauty of today could be called Ingrid; it’s just… unlikely.

The most common Swedish naming practice is to give new-born babies a name from an earlier generation than their parents. Ingrid was popular in the 20s and 30s (and possibly earlier), and now its popularity is climbing again. Obviously this isn’t always true, but it’s common enough for it to be obvious in school class lists – and I’ve seen my share of those – and it’s born out in the naming statistics kept by Statistics Sweden.

So what should you call your Swedish beauty?

Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman
Well, the most popular girls names in the 1990s were Emma, Sara, Elin, Amanda and Hanna. And there we meet another problem. If you’re not writing a book set in Sweden and for a Swedish audience, I guess you want a name that has an exotic quality about it. It’s Swedish, it ought to sound Swedish – but (with the possible exception of Elin) all of these might be British or American girls. Things don’t get better with the next most popular five: Johanna, Julia, Emelie, Josefin, Anna.

Where are the Fridas, the Ingas, the Björks, the Gretas? Well, they’re in the statistics, but they’re simply not that usual. Inga is the most common, but most Ingas are in their eighties.

What lesson to take from this? This is Sweden. Every country, every community even, is likely to have its own naming quirks. If you must name a character with a foreign name, do try the name out on someone who knows the community well to avoid making a mistake. And if you have a name you’re wedded too – if the girl has got to be called Agnetha – then come up with a reason. (Her mother was an Abba groupie. She hates/loves her given name because it made her stand out as a child.) And there, you see, what might be a flaw gets turned into a bit of extra back-story to bulk your character out.

There’s lots more to say about choosing names for characters so I expect I’ll come back to this topic again. For now though, I think that’s enough. Thanks for reading.

The illustrations are clipped from copyright free photos on Wikipedia. Statistics are with thanks to Statistics Sweden (SCB).

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.