Do You Know Your Characters’ Backstories and Family Histories?

Do You Know Your Characters’ Backstories and Family Histories? introduces the ideas of using traditional family naming patterns and family tree charts when creating your character’s backstories and family histories.

It’s Family Day here in Ontario, and with that in mind, I thought it might be a good time to ask: Do you know your characters’ backstories and, more specifically, who their families were/are?

Admittedly, knowing this isn’t important necessarily for your secondary characters, and knowing this may not add to your story depending on the genre or your storyline. But, it’s always a good exercise to understand what makes your characters tick, and establishing their backstories and family histories are great ways to do this. After all, who we are as people is due to our “nature and nurture” so why should the same not be true for our characters?

Did you know:

  • English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish typically used a naming pattern when naming children that went like this:

    • The first son was named after the father’s father
    • The second son was named after the mother’s father
    • The third son was named after the father
    • The fourth son was named after the father’s eldest brother
    • The fifth son was named after the mother’s eldest brother
    • The first daughter was named after the mother’s mother
    • The second daughter was named after the father’s mother
    • The third daughter was named after the mother
    • The fourth daughter was named after the mother’s eldest sister
    • The fifth daughter was named after the father’s eldest sister

    Not everyone followed it exactly, but when you’re doing genealogy, if your ancestors did use a naming pattern like this, it can make it easier to trace your ancestors, and knowing this, it might make it easier to write your characters’ family histories. Following a traditional naming pattern might be a good idea if your character’s family is supposed to be conservative and traditional.

    With my Scottish ancestors, when a daughter was named for one of her grandmothers she was given the grandmother’s first and surname. So the first granddaughter of Sarah Whitelaw, for example, was named Sarah Whitelaw McPherson. In this way, the mother’s maiden name was preserved. In Cornwall, the practice was to give all the children the mother’s maiden surname as a middle name.

    I’ve also read that the first daughter born to a second wife was named after the first wife, using her full name. (Presumably, the first wife died to warrant such an honour. Generations ago, divorce wasn’t common and I can’t imagine an ex-wife being held in such esteem in this day and age!)

  • When infant mortality rates were high, names were sometimes recycled. So, for example, if a daughter was born and given the name Sarah Whitelaw, and she died before the next daughter was born, some families would recycle the name, and in the case of our example, this second daughter would also be named Sarah Whitelaw. That probably sounds a bit confusing, but when you’re doing genealogy research, it’s not uncommon to discover multiple children with the same name in the same family. This may have been done in an attempt to continue the naming patterns which honoured grandparents and other relatives.
  • Sometimes surnames were given as first names.

Knowing all of this might also help you when it comes to naming your characters. Please note there are variations on this for different nationalities, religions and cultural groups. You can find lots of information online. This site offers some insight.

Tip: Most genealogists used specialized software to track their family records, but you can also use family tree charts to do this. You can find several options here and these may work well for seeing the big picture when you create your fictional families.

Hope that gives you some ideas for creating your characters’ backstories and family histories.

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