In Shakespeare’s play about the eternal love story Romeo and Juliet she asks:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet was referring to their last names, for she was a Capulet and Romeo was a Montague, two feuding families of medieval Verona. As we know, things did not end well for the star-crossed lovers. It appears there is more to a name than Juliet imagined.
Names are important when writing historical fiction. They conjure personalities, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses, traits and inclinations. Can you imagine King Melvin of the Round Table instead of King Arthur? Mildred instead of Joan of Arc? Consider how much mystery would be lost if we mourned over the travails of Sam and Sally rather than Heloise and Abelard.
In historical fiction, names convey a sense of time and place. Names are part of creating the “imagined world” in which the story takes place. When the characters’ names are discordant with the period and culture, it creates a jarring dissonance for readers. How characters are named adds to mood and theme, as well as signaling qualities that shape their personalities.
That said, what if you’re writing about a culture and time that is far removed from the experience of most Western-educated people? How do names then figure into the construction of world and characters? Herein lies a difficulty for writers of ancient worlds fiction, set in cultures that are vastly different than those of historic Europe. Consider the complexity of names from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia, Polynesia, and my area: the ancient Mayas of Mesoamerica.
Names in ancient languages vs names translated into English.
My approach to naming characters has been to use actual ancient Mayan names as phonetically spelled by researchers and epigraphers. Since conventions for these spellings have changed over the years, I had to choose which to use and selected those that seemed friendliest to English-speakers. Not all writers of ancient Mayan historical fiction do this; several use English translations of Mayan names, or a combination of translated and phonetically spelled names. I feel it’s important to use historic characters’ actual names phonetically spelled in Arabic letters. This preserves the cadence and qualities of ancient Mayan speech and helps create the feeling tone of their “imagined world.” To me, saying their names creates a vibration that resonates with their personality and attitudes. If I used English translations of their names, an essential quality would be lost, a sense of different place and culture that puts the reader into the aura of ancient Mayan civilization.
For example, these are the actual Mayan names of the four queens in my “Mists of Palenque” series, with the English translations. The Mayan names are pronounced using romance language vowel sounds: a = ah, e = eh, i = ee, o = oh, u = ooh.
Mayan name English translation
Yohl Ik’nal Her Heart/Center of North Wind
Sak K’uk White Resplendent Quetzal
Tz’aakb’u Ahau Accumulator/Producer of Lords
K’inuuw Mat Sun-Possessed Cormorant
To me, a great deal is lost when these Mayan names are not used. I’ve read other books where the Maya characters have names such as Jeweled Skirt, Red Flint, Snake Jaguar, Tree Orchid, Iguana Wind, and Big Deer. These are easier for English-speakers to remember and pronounce, but lack cultural ambiance that sets mood and tone.
What’s In a Name is a Great Deal.
To disagree with Juliet, I believe names matter a lot in stories. My choice to use Mayan names for characters and places has led to bad reviews by some readers, who give low ratings with complaints that they couldn’t get past the difficult names. I wonder if they feel the same way about fiction set in ancient Egypt or Biblical times, with long and complex names but more familiar to
European-based cultures. Moving beyond one’s comfort zone is essential to appreciate cultures that are very different from your own. Indigenous Mesoamerican cultures have some of the most complex names I’ve found, yet are rich in history and accomplishments. Recently I read a book about the pre-Aztec cultures around Lake Meztliapan, the Toltecs and Chichimecs. Many actual names were used—Ihuitimal, Eloxochitl, Topiltzin, Citlallotoc, Tlazolteotl—and I preferred these to translated names that were also used, such as Black Otter, Spear Fish, and Jade Flower.
One Concession to Difficult Names.
Of the four queens in my series, the third has the most difficult name: Tz’aakb’u Ahau. This name does not roll easily off the tongue. To make reading (and writing) go more smoothly, I gave this queen the childhood name Lalak. There was no information about what her actual childhood name might have been, for she only appears in hieroglyphs after being granted her royal name. Since the love story between her and the ruler of Palenque is a dominant theme in the book, I found nice parallelism in the pairing of their names: Lalak and Pakal—eternal Mayan lovers but with a happier ending than Romeo and Juliet.
Newly released print version–March 1, 2018!
Join me for book release events:
March 8, 7-8 pm Another Read Through in Portland, OR
March 23, 7-8 pm The Book Bin in Salem, OR
April 7, 4-6 pm Silverton Grange in Silverton, OR