Character names and nicknames

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This is part of a series, 15 Days to a Stronger Character

Names and Nicknames: Echo Character Traits

http://www.flickr.com/photos/saschapohflepp/2017820431/Let’s start with the basics. What do you call this character? What difference does a name make to effective characterization?

I recently heard of an inner city family whose oldest child is named Chris and the second oldest is named Kilo. Think about what those names would mean to the kids. Would the second be more likely to turn to drugs? Would the first be more likely to escape the poverty he grew up in?

A rose by any other name–is it a rose or not?

What if you named a child Alexander, after Alexander the Great? What sort of expectations does this build for the child? If you adopt a Chinese daughter, do you give her an American name only; or, do you use her Chinese name as her middle name? What difference does it make?

Obviously, I think all of these things matter and matter a great deal. When I name a character, I take great care with the name, even looking up the name’s meaning in several books, websites, to find the variations that might exist.

Here are two online sources for names:
Baby Names World
Parenthood.com’s resource for name meanings

Nicknames

While names often say something about family expectations, nicknames reflect family or friends’ perception of a person. Someone nicknamed Snake would be very different from a person nicknamed, Grumpy.

Think about your character’s skills in personal relationships, physical characteristics, intelligence (or lack of intelligence), friends, skills or interests, etc. Give them a nickname that will reflect a contrasting characteristic and you’re on the way to an interesting character.

Examples of Nickname Strategies

  • Old West: Abilene, Bronco, Lightfoot, Banjo
  • Animal: Goose, Fang, Bulldog, Crow
  • Automobile: Hot Rod, Honk, Lugnut, Mustang
  • Aviation: Bomber, May Day, Rocket
  • Cute: Snuffy, Sweet Pea, Wiggles
  • Descriptive: Bones, Whiskey, Cap
  • Famous Person: Shakespeare, Socrates, Michael Jordan
  • Food: Burp, Cupcake, Soupy, T-Bone
  • Games & Sports: Lefty, Blitz, Swish, Tenpin
  • Geographic: Burma, Montana, Sahara, Frisco, ‘Bama, Broadway Joe
  • Initials: ZZ, TJ, KK, PC, OJ
  • Military: Sarge, Tank, Torpedo, Wharf
  • Music: BeBop, Jazz, Yodel, Whistler
  • Strange or Exotic: Abracadabra, Shadrack, Yo-Yo, Hoochee
  • Villainous: Fist, Scar, Stabber, Wart, Weasel
  • Weather: Cyclone, Sprinkle, Snowball

For more detailed lists of nicknames and many other characteristics, see creatingcharactersCreating Characters: A Writer’s Reference to the Personality Traits That Bring Fictional People to Life by Howard Lauther.

2 Comments
  • Liz
    January 3, 2008

    I spend a lot of time on selecting the names also.

    Fo my YA the MC is Avarielle — which means -woman of strength- — everyone calls her Ava — which means –little bird–

    one of her antagonsits is a woman named Ivy — I pictured how the plant ivy can slowly wrap itself around a tree and dig into and kill it.

    Many times – especially for picture books – the name just pops out of my head and I stick with it.

    Thanks for posting the resource – Creating Characters

  • Abby Gale
    October 28, 2011

    You know, names are sooo important to characters. I began my character with her name: Iridessa Marie Thomas. Iridessa=iridescence=Iris=Thaumas=Thomas. Iridescence is having qualities of a rainbow, and her middle name, Marie comes from “Mara”, a hebrew name meaning “bitter”.

    Essentially, her name means “bitter-rainbow”, and that is, indeed, exactly who she is!