When Writing Fiction Based on Real Life – Should you Change Character Names?


Naming Characters

When I started my writing journey, I used the real names of the characters. It wasn’t because I was being lazy, it was because I was writing about  my ancestors and I wanted to ‘connect’ with them and know who I was researching. I always knew that somewhere down the line, if I ever published the book, I would change at least some of the names. As time went on, however, I became attached to the names and I started to question if I really did need to change them. There are two reasons why the answer to this question was YES, at least for the surnames.

Reasons to Change Names

One is obvious (to me anyway). Some of my fictional story lines paint certain characters in a bad light, and one is incriminated in a couple of murders. I clearly don’t want the real people being associated with their fictional counterparts; I also don’t want to upset any living relatives.

The second reason was less apparent. When family members read my early drafts, most were confused by the number of characters. I thought it was because I hadn’t explained myself clearly enough, but when I had a short story prequel to the series edited (which only names about five characters), the editor made me realise that part of the problem is that some of the names sound too similar.

In real life, across the whole series, I have:

  • Mary (x2), Mary-Ann, Mary-Anne, Maria (x2)
  • Sarah, Sarah-Ann
  • Ann
  • Elizabeth (x2), Eliza
  • William (x5)
  • Charles (x3)

… plus an assortment of other names that are only used once.

After the first draft, one of the Williams had to go. Even I was confused! Part of the problem was, however, that I had to leave four of the William’s with the same name – it was part of the story to show the relationship between them. I think I’ve managed it. One of them is always referred to as Mr Weatherby (changed name), one stays as William, one is William Junior and one is William-Weatherby. I did consider using Bill, Billy or Willy, but the names didn’t fit their personas or circumstances. I specifically asked my beta readers if William and William Junior (who were actually sons of the same mother!) were confusing and I got comments to the effect that they weren’t. Hopefully it won’t confuse the wider audience.

The Charles’s were relatively easy. One died before the last one was born and the other was a father / grandfather, so that is how he is always referred to.

The women are not so easy.

I decided the best way to get authentic names was to go back to the census records and see what their neighbours were called. Do you know what I found? The majority were called Mary, Elizabeth, Ann, Sarah and Sarah-Ann. Those that weren’t were called Lucy, Emma, Martha, Rachel, Rebecca, Charlotte, Katherine … and I already had them as well!

How was I going to rename at least six different female characters from such a small pool of names?

Dickens had to make names up

As I was considering this, I came across and article on the BBC website about naming conventions through the last few centuries. It included the following:

For centuries, name giving was determined by custom, with most babies being given one of only a few names that were handed down from one generation to the next. Even in the late 18th Century, more than half of all boys in Britain were baptised William, John or Thomas, and more than half of all girls were baptised Elizabeth, Mary or Anne.

I could have told them that!

It went on to say:

[Charles] Dickens alone created a thousand named characters … for example, his characters named Daisy, Flora, Rose and Rosa probably helped foster the Victorian fashion for botanical names for girls.

So it looks like even Dickens had trouble and needed to make up names for his characters. That made me feel slightly better.  🙂

I’ve started, but not finished, my renaming process. William was such a common name of the time I decided I could leave it unchanged, but for the women I suspect in weeks to come I may be adopting some of Dickens’ names. Don’t be surprised if you see someone called Rose or Daisy crop up in any of the books!

If you want to know more about The Ambition & Destiny Series or receive my monthly newsletter, visit my website here.

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ReferenceBBC Website

About Val McBeath

Born and raised in Liverpool (UK), I live in Cheshire with husband, youngest daughter, and cat. In addition to family history, interests include rock music and Liverpool Football Club. Prior to writing, I trained as a scientist and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years. In 2012, I set up my own consultancy business and now split my time between business and writing.
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