In the novel I am currently working on, this sentence:
François said to Charles, "Never cross Anne."
could mean sixteen different things.
Yes, you read that correctly. Sixteen.
You see, in this novel there are four François, two Charles and two Annes: four different subjects who could be counseling one of two characters against annoying either of two others. The King could be warning the emperor not to vex the royal mistress, or the court portraitist cautioning the prince not to betray the grand master, or perhaps it is the Arabic-speaking Italian painter tipping off the prince about the duchess... If I've done my math correctly, readers of my novel could understand the aforementioned sentence sixteen different ways.
Did I intend to confuse and confound them?
No. That's simply what happens when historical characters bear the same name.
At one point or another, most writers of historical fiction face the challenge of how to differentiate between historical characters who share identical given names. The task is not trivial, since readers will abandon a book if they are unable to keep its characters and their relationships straight. Writers of contemporary fiction avoid the danger by endowing their characters with unique and unusual names that distinguish them from every other member of the cast (and imaginary characters, unlike modern children, are not burdened with having to repeat and spell these original names aloud each they make a new acquaintance). Writers of historical fiction, however, are bound to respect the given names of their historical characters if they wish to remain true to the historical record. In early modern Europe, convention forced parents to choose baby names from a restricted roster of saints, historic figures, and ancestors; in some regions, the birth order of the child limited these options even further. Just as an author of historical fiction has little freedom in choosing which characters figure in the action of the historical events she recounts, she has even less leeway in deciding what to call those characters.
These circumstances can result in the author having to tell a tale involving, ahem, four François, two Charles, and two Annes, with a Catherine thrown in for good measure.
The problem becomes even more complicated when one takes into account other issues, such as the fact that historical figures are often referred to by different names in different countries and that what the characters call each other is not necessarily what the narrator must, or should, call them.
So what can an author do to prevent her reader from becoming hopelessly befuddled? Here are some of the strategies I've employed:
1) Provide contextual clues.
It happens that one of my Annes is a man (the duc de Montmorency) and the other a woman (Anne d'Heilly, the duchesse d'Étampes). So if a passage describes the cut of Anne's gown or examines Anne's duties as Grand Constable of France, the reader should be able immediately to surmise which Anne is in question. Likewise, one of the four François is king, the other three artists; the king would probably not bemoan the laziness of apprentices, nor the artists debate the details of a peace treaty. Setting (boudoir versus council chamber, throne room versus studio), interlocutors, topic of conversation, actions and inner dialog should all offer clear indications as to the identity of the characters. If not, there is more wrong with the scene than faulty nomenclature.
2) Use honorary titles and/or place names instead of given names.
In my novel, I usually refer to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, as "the emperor," "Charles-Quint," or "le Hapsbourg" in order to distinguish him from the king's son, Charles, the duc d'Orléans. Since another duke figures prominently in the action, I cannot, except in precise circumstances, refer to the king's son as "the duke"; I must call him "Orléans" and the other duke "Montmorency."Anne d'Etampes, on the other hand, is the only duchess, so she enjoys the privilege of claiming that title and avoiding confusion with Anne de Montmorency. As two of the Italian artists are Francescos, one becomes Boulogne (French for the man's city of origin, Bologna), and the other goes by his last name, Pellegrino. Using honorary titles or designating characters by their place of origin avoids the problem of identical given names altogether.
3) Substitute nicknames.
Another way to simplify the problem is to invent or unearth nicknames for your characters. As King François's best friend and his lover are both Annes, I have him call his mistress by the diminutive form of the name, Annette. Anne d'Étampes and Orléans, when speaking of their common enemy Anne de Montmorency, refer to him by a private nickname known only to them--"l'Autre" (the "other" Anne). One of the artists, François Clouet, goes by the historically documented nickname Jamet. Both he and his father, Jean Clouet, used the nickname interchangeably throughout their careers (much to the chagrin of art historians). In the novel, I restrict use of the nickname to the son, thereby distinguishing him both from his father and from the other two artists named Francesco.
4) Provide a list of characters at the beginning of the book.
It is particularly helpful to include, for the reader's easy reference, all the titles and nicknames associated with each character throughout the story.
5) Ensure that the names of fictional characters are different from each other and dissimilar to the overused historical names.
When creating fictional characters to round out a historical setting, endow them with distinctive, memorable names. Like any good modern parent, I found obscure, yet historically documented, names for my fictional characters: Tiphaine, Agnolo, Sandro, Faustine. Little chance, I hope, of the reader confusing them with the more prominent Annes, Charles and François.
Final words of advice: once you, as author, decide how to distinguish between similarly-named characters, BE CONSISTENT in the terms you use. Don't refer to a character one way in the first chapter and a different way in the next. Of course, characters will refer to each other in varied ways, depending on their social status and degree of intimacy; again, decide how each character will address the others and do not stray from those conventions.
Your readers will not only thank you, but might even remember your name.
Readers: How do you prefer to see an author handle this issue?
Authors: What devices do you use to avoid name confusion?
I'd love to hear your suggestions!