A topic I see come up frequently on the AW boards is “What should I name my characters?” I even wrote about it once on this blog in relation to the names I was using for my trunked NaNo novel.

First names are one thing; but surnames are a whole other story. 
AW was the first place where I learned that other writers don’t often give their character last names. I hadn’t really thought of it much, but I thought it was kind of weird that they didn’t use last names for major characters. Maybe it’s because I’m writing historical fiction and people used their surnames more often in those days, but I’ve become a collector of Anglo last names to rehash onto minor characters.
Like first names, a surname can indicate more about the character–maybe a sharp-edged character has a short, clipped last name like Thorpe. Or a distinguished character’s last name is more elaborate, like Knightley. Or silly, like Hogwood.

(I totally gave Hogwood to a background character, by the way. I get great joy out of typing it.)

A last name can be common and therefore, maybe the character is, too: surnames like Smith, Jones, and Williams, for instance. Or maybe there’s a good story behind a particular surname’s meaning that either fits the character or is incongruous with the character. (My last name is Irish, but it’s rare. It means “Ae’s ford.” Ae was apparently killed crossing a river near the County Kildare town of Athy. So far, no proof that we’re from there.)

Most of all, a last name usually denotes ethnicity in some way. It can be a shortcut to explaining that the character is French or German or Japanese. A surname can link a character beyond the scope of the story. And, in historical fiction, a last name can go some way to hinting at a family’s past history.

In The Pillars of the Earth, the characters do not have fixed surnames as we do–because it was 12th century–but the characters have informal surnames. There’s Tom Builder, named for his occupation; Jack Jackson, with his patronymic surname; the Hamleighs, who seem to be called after the village they run; Aliena of Shirling or Aliena of Kingsbridge, a noble-born woman; and Waleran Bigod, a bishop, Bigod being both ironic considering the character and a Norman-derived last name. At the time, of course, the English monarchy was only a few generations removed from the Conquest and most of the landowners were Norman descendants.

Choosing Your Character’s Last Name 

A few things I considered when surnaming my characters:

1) Does the name fit with the story I’m writing? Does it fit with the setting? The time period (in the eighteenth century, hyphenated last names were generally something aristocrats did, for instance)? The overall mood?

2) Does it mark my character as a particular ethnicity?

3) Is it too similar to other last names in the story?

You can explore some last names at Behind the Surname for a start.

Here are some of the last names I’m using in the WIP:

4 thoughts on “Surnames

  1. I probably fall into the category of writers that don't give all their characters last names. Unless it's important. But I'll usually give main characters a last name anyway. I do have one story where the names in general show the Russian influence on the culture. That was a lot of fun!I agree that it can it be a great way to show information about the character though. I don't ultilize that often enough.


  2. I didn't used to give all my characters last names—just the important ones. Or non-important ones related to the main characters, obviously. But just for this one, writing in a time where last names were used more, I've had to think of more last names. I always wanted to write a story set in Russia, if only to think up patronymics for everyone.


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