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The Tiffany Problem | The Tricky Thing About Naming Characters In Historical Fiction

Character names can be tricky things. For some writers, it comes with a pressure on the level of naming children! We may spend hours or even days in deliberation and may change our characters' names multiple times before finding the one that's perfect.

When choosing character names, there are plenty of things to consider. Because it's on the page, you may feel like it has to not only sound good but look good. You don't want to have too many characters with similar names readers get them confused, nor do you want them to be so unique the reader can't make sense of them. You might want to avoid a name that's too common or one that could get mixed up with other fictional characters out there like Rachel Green or using Hazel Grace as a first-and-middle-name-combo but you also have to avoid names that are so unique and tied to a specific association like Hermione or Annabeth. Some writers also like to give their characters names with special meanings like Vija, a name with Latvian origins that means "garland" or "wreath."

And if you're a historical fiction writer, you may also be worrying about historical accuracy.

One component of crafting a realistic historical setting is the characters residing within it. Part of this may include their occupation, their clothes, their vocabulary and cant, and even their names.

Imagine you're reading a romance set during the Civil War. The protagonist is named John. His brothers are Michael, James, Samuel, Thomas, and David, and he has a sister named Mary. And as for John's love interest? Enter Everleigh.

Everleigh is a pretty name and is among the most popular right now. But for a story taking place in the 1860s, a name that didn't seem to come about or gain traction until the 2000s is going to feel out of place and potentially throw the reader out of the story. Why?

Unless Everleigh is a time-traveler, it's unrealistic to have a character with that name in that time period.

But what if you called her Tiffanie?

Believe it or not, this is more plausible than Everleigh in an 1860s setting.

You're probably scratching your head right now, and I don't blame you.

This, friends, is what writers call The Tiffany Problem.

Coined by Jo Walton, The Tiffany Problem occurs when a name is technically historically accurate but feels too modern to be taken seriously by readers.

Tiffany, more specifically Tiffanie or Tiffania, has medieval origins. It's a shortened form of Theophania and was often given to baby girls born or christened around the feast of the Epiphany.

Nowadays, the feast we tend to associate it with is breakfast. As in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

I know. Terrible segue. I take full ownership of that.

The point is, even though Tiffany and its variations have been around since the 12th century, it's not a name commonly used in historical fiction because it feels too modern. It feels like it's only been around for a few decades at most, not just shy of a thousand years!

What Causes The Tiffany Problem?

Perceptions and associations evolve alongside society in ways we cannot always predict. Just as it can be for historical facts and what we think things looked like back then, names can get lost in the transition of time.

Nowadays, you might not see as many Fannys enrolled in kindergarten classrooms due to "fanny" being American slang for one's rear end or a term used for one's lady bits in the UK.

Jessica is a name many associate with the Valley Girl archetype. The perky blonde cheerleader who is totally and literally the most popular girl in school. But it's actually one of several names that Shakespeare is credited with inventing!

Meanwhile, Ariel is another name used by Shakespeare but is more often associated with Disney's The Little Mermaid. New spellings can also crop up, as we see with Arielle and Aryel, as well as variations like Ariella.

In other words, you could technically have a series of historical romance novels that follows sisters Fanny, Ariel, Jessica, and Tiffanie.

Oh, and their brother's name is Ashley.

Ashley is a unisex name, as are Stacy, Ariel, and Lesley, but is predominately bestowed upon baby girls. So when middle-school-me was reading Gone with the Wind for the first time, I was initially confused by Scarlett's crush on Ashley; every Ashley I'd met or known of up until then was a girl.

Spelling can also shift around depending on culture, region, and other factors. Sarah could also be spelled Sara. You can see Mary, Marie, Maria, and Mari.

Additionally, some names are more common in some parts of the world than other. Jin, a name with Japanese roots, might not be as frequently used in Columbia.

There's a lot that goes into a name, even when the name is being given to a fictional character. And when we don't know its origins or how it's changed over the years, it can feel out of place in a historical setting.

How I Name My Historical Characters

I'm going to preface this by saying there's no absolute rule when it comes to naming characters in a historical setting. Especially in the case of historical fantasy, readers may be lenient depending on the circumstances.

When it comes to my own Regency Era characters, I try to stick with names that were in use when they were born. One of my go-to sources for names is a post office directory of London from 1807. This one's especially good for surnames. I've also browsed through census records and other documents.

I typically stick to traditional or classic English baby names for my characters. Caroline, William, Thomas, Kate, and Nancy have all made appearances as protagonists.

That said, I've come pretty close to encountering The Tiffany Problem in my writing journey.

Zach, for instance, feels ever so slightly contemporary, especially alongside brothers Henry, Peter, and Charles or whatever his oldest brother's name is these days (he's gone through ten at this point). However, the Zach that appears in Bound to the Heart goes by Zach as a shortened form of Zachariah. It's still pushing that envelope a little, but the name has origins in the Bible so I'm comfortable using it in this historical context.

One protagonist in a for-now-scrapped Regency romance that I started writing in my teens bore a name that someone honestly thought I made up. The truth is, it was an old Celtic name and the character was the son of an Irish father so I let it be because it honestly fit him like a glove; I did start messing around with the other kind-of-contemporary protagonist name before shelving it, though!

If I want to use a name that may border on being a Tiffany, I'll typically present a justifiable reason for it within the context of the story. For example, Zach's full name being Zachariah is established in the first few pages of Bound to the Heart.

Whether it's a name with a meaning that ties into the themes of the story, one that has strong cultural roots, or one that you just happen to like, deciding what to call your characters can be a fun and detailed phase of writing.

But one thing some writers have to take into account is how well that name blends into their historical setting. Many names are timeless. Others are quite indicative of their time. And some, like Tiffany, are seemingly out of place but actually right where they belong.

How you choose your characters' names is entirely up to personal preference. Your readers don't have final say on the matter, but you may feel inclined to keep them in mind.

The Tiffany problem makes naming a future historical protagonist Tiffany all the more tempting. Sure, it may prompt an eye-roll from a reader or three, but it's also a fun thing to discuss.



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