Choosing names for the characters in my novels is one of the more enjoyable elements in the initial stages of putting together a story. Names have to come early on in the process but that doesn’t mean they can’t change. Alice in Secrets of the Pomegranate only became Alice in the final draft when I realised – confirmed by feedback – that her previous name absolutely didn’t fit. I had chosen it before I had a clear idea of who she was.

To give it authenticity, a name must be true to the background and historical period as well as to the personality of the protagonist. It must be distinctive enough to remain in the mind of the reader and not too similar to the names of other characters in the story. Names are influenced by fashion every bit as much as clothes or music so it’s worth consulting the lists of names popular in the relevant decade; they are easy to find, along with their meanings. In my new novel, The Red Gene, not yet published, my main protagonist Rose is born in the second decade of the 20th century. She has become so real to me, so firmly identified with the name I’ve assigned her, that I can’t imagine changing it now. Her brothers are Ralph and Bertie, her contemporary friends Mabel and Dorothy – names you would be unlikely to find in the next generation, born in the 40s and 50s. Rose’s nephews and nieces are Helen, Peter, Susan and Robert, while their children have names more fashionable in the 70s and 80s: Zoe, Zach, Oliver, Samantha…

Choosing Spanish names proved rather more complicated. Until forty years ago, the Church dictated what names were allowed, with a prescribed list for parents to choose from: saints or particular images of the Virgin Mary. There was no opting out, no chance to pick a fancy foreign name or commemorate your favourite footballer or film star. Hardly surprising then, that Spain is so full of Josés and Marías or amalgamations of the two, José María for boys, María José for girls. Despite the extensive choice of available saints, Mary and Joseph have predominated in the popularity stakes. This, along with the tradition – almost universal until relatively recently – of naming firstborn children after their parents, limits the number of names in circulation. There are still people who believe that Christian names should be inherited in the same way as eye colour, artistic talent or property, preserving them in the family to show respect for their antecedents.

In selecting names for my Spanish protagonists, I had to balance authenticity against the need to avoid confusion. Even if I disregarded the custom of passing a name down the family, I still had to consider how similar these saintly names can sound to a non-Spanish ear. The characters’ names are one element in setting the tone of the era and social milieu in question – in this case Catholic Spain during the dictatorship, a society where the influence of the Church weighed heavy. Incarnation, Adoration, Conception: such names would surely be considered cruel in Britain but in Spain their equivalents are – or used to be – commonplace. Catholic girls had to suffer some of the most depressing names in existence. Grief, pain and anguish were, apparently, the foremost emotions that came to mind when a baby girl was to be named. As well as Dolores (grief or pain – a reference to Our Lady of the Sorrows) and Angustias (anguish), there is Soledad signifying the loneliness of the Virgin at the Passion of Christ. Cruz or Crucifixión and Expiración suggest yet more suffering.

The qualities of virtue and purity were invoked with particular frequency for the female sex, with names such as Piedad (piety), Inmaculada (immaculate) and Sacramento (sacrament). With so many oppressive religious names, short forms are a blessing. Concha (shell) sounds a good deal more palatable than Concepción. Dolores can be reduced to Lola, Inmaculada to Inma, Purificación to Puri, Adoración to Dori. Boys’ names can also be tough to live up to: the deeds or qualities expected of a boy named Jesús or Salvador (saviour) must be formidable, while Ángel, Gabriel and Miguel are all angels; Serafín is an angel of the highest order.

Being so universal, many of these names appear in The Red Gene, a story that spans seventy-five years of Spanish history. Consuelo, born in 1939, has four brothers: Francisco (probably the most popular boys’ name in Spain), José María, Rafael and Juan, while the parents in this staunchly Catholic, landowning family are María Angustias and José. She has a friend Puri and aunts Inma and Adoración. By the later years of the dictatorship, society was becoming somewhat less oppressive and this is reflected in parents’ choice of names. Consuelo’s longed-for fifth child is named Marisol, María of the Sun: her mother hopes she will ‘bring sunshine into their lives.’

A law was passed by Franco in 1941 that allowed children forcibly removed from their Republican parents – for adoption by ‘persons irreproachable from a religious, ethical and nationalist point of view’, naturally – to be inscribed in the Civil Register under a new name. This practice, which made irregular adoptions much easier, continued throughout the dictatorship, that is, until 1975. Consuelo in The Red Gene has the name given her by her adoptive parents, thus successfully disguising her origins.

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