This is part of a series, 15 Days to a Stronger Character
Names and Nicknames: Echo Character Traits
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.
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 Creating Characters: A Writer’s Reference to the Personality Traits That Bring Fictional People to Life by Howard Lauther.