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Are you using the power of nicknames?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

That, from Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii, has got to be among the most clichéd lines of anything Shakespeare ever wrote. Yet, for all that Shakespeare was an amazing writer, it is equally amazing the degree to which he shows Juliet totally missing power of names. One could argue that Juliet is a clueless teenage girl and so it is right that she should be so profoundly blind to the power of names, but that Shakespeare himself must surely have known.

For the Bard’s sake, I’ll go with that theory.

First, a word about given names to explain why I don’t want to talk about them: Given names are boring. Given names are bestowed on us when we are but vaguely defined blobs of flesh and poop and spit-up. Our parents bestow our given names upon us in the absence of any real information about what kinds of people we will become. For novelists, this makes given names useless for anything except as labels by which we and our readers can keep our characters straight, and as superficial indicators of cultural/ethnic background. Sure, that’s useful, but it’s boring.

Nicknames, on the other hand aren’t boring at all. Nicknames have tremendous power, and those are what I want to focus on here.

Nicknames are pronouns on steroids

Face it, on the one hand you don’t want to have to name all the bit players in your books: the taxi drivers, the waitresses, the post office workers your real characters may happen to meet. But you also want those people to feel real. You want them to be more than a cookie-cutter stereotype of their role, if even just a little bit. For that, nicknames used in the context of narrative are incredibly handy. Like this:

Letter in hand, I raced to the mailbox, arriving as it happened just as the delivery truck pulled up to a stop. The mailman stepped out, giving me a friendly nod. The guy was, there’s no other way to put it, impossibly tall. NBA tall. Seven and a half feet, at least. I couldn’t help but wonder how he folds himself up into that little mail truck all day, and whether his back hurts from bending down all the time to put people’s junk mail into their boxes.

NBA saw me staring. “Can I help you?”

“I just need to mail this.” I extended my hand, and he took the letter from me.

The nickname does two things. First, it gives the guy a label so you can avoid saying “the impossibly-tall mailman” all over the place. Second, it’s a label that reenforces his description. Give these bit players one memorable attribute, and then use a nickname that reminds the reader about that attribute. I can say this, two chapters or five chapters later, and readers will know immediately who I’m talking about:

The doorbell rang. I squinted through the peep-hole. It was NBA.

I opened the door. “Yes?”

“You got a registered letter,” NBA said. “You need to sign for it.”

I don’t have to remind readers that this is the same helpful mailman from before. I don’t have to remind them that he’s a certifiable giant. The nickname does all that for me.

Think of these kinds of bit-player nicknames like pronouns on steroids: they refer to people even in the absence of a name, just like “he” or “she” would do, but they carry with them whatever mental image the reader created at the time you first introduced the character. This technique works especially well in first-person narratives, and when the narrator has a sarcastic, humorous, or snarky attitude.

Nicknames are manipulative

But what about nicknames used in dialogue? That’s a whole other can of worms. A nickname in narrative is a private thing, between the narrator and the reader alone. A nickname in dialogue is public to the narrator, reader, and other characters in the book.

Because nicknames in dialogue are public, Theory of mind suggests that both speaker and listener understand that a nickname is not the given name of whoever it refers to. Consider the difference between the above example and this:

The doorbell rang. I squinted through the peep-hole. It was NBA.

I opened the door. “Hey, NBA! What’s up?”

His face hardened and he jabbed a clipboard out to me. “You need to sign for this.”

No question there that the narrator has offended the mailman, who is probably sick to death of people making jokes about his height. The power of nicknames to offend or belittle—even unintentionally—is enormous so tread carefully there.

However, this power can also be used intentionally, and for other purposes. To name a thing is to define it in your own terms. To nickname a person, especially through a nickname based on an attribute about them that ¬you select, is to define them in your own terms. This is a form of social domination. It’s a power-play.

If I can name you and make the name stick, then at least within the social framework that the two of us co-exist in, I own you and I can use my power of ownership to support you or repress you. If I choose a respectful nickname based on some positive quality of yours, I enhance your social standing through the nickname. But if I pick a nickname to make fun of your big ears—"hey Dumbo"—I undermine your standing.

For this reason, you can use nicknaming to show that desire to dominate. It is signal of cocksure arrogance, to believe that you can get away with re-defining people at your whim. However, nicknaming can also be a sign of insecurity. A character might try to nickname everybody as a means of claiming social power he doesn’t really have.

Whether a nicknaming character comes across as cocky or insecure mostly depends on how you handle the outcomes of the character’s attempts to label people. For instance, if the nicknames stick, it’s a sure sign that the character has genuine social power. If they don’t, more likely it’s evidence of a desperate power-play.

This happens in real life all the time. Playground bullies give nicknames to the weaker kids exactly to re-enforce the image of them as week, and to support their own position at the top of the pecking order. In sports, teammates often give each other locker room nicknames as badges of honor to recognize particular skills each player excels at. President George Bush was famous for assigning nicknames to everyone around him—members of the White House press pool, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, foreign heads of state—heck, even his mother got a nickname!


The giving of names is a powerful thing. While “a rose is a rose,” and while having the surname Montague didn’t change one little thing about who Romeo was as a person, nicknames are another matter. To name a person is to define them. To name them is to make them yours. To name someone is control how other people see them.

Your characters can use this power for good or for ill. Just make sure you know which one you want them to be doing.

May 07, 2010 18:08 UTC

Tags: character, names, nicknames, attributes, control

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What's in a name?

You want to know what I hate about the process of writing novels?

Coming up with names.

Judging by the number of “Help me name my character!” threads on the NaNoWriMo forums, I’m not the only one.

Seriously. What a chore. That is hands-down my least favorite part. On the one hand names are irrelevant to the story, so inventing them feels like make-work. But while a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, your characters’ names must sound right or you’ll lose the reader.

Well, most of the time they’re irrelevant to the plot. One book I read recently jumps to mind as a great counter-example where the author built a significant reversal about the character into the revelation of what the character’s name means. It’s is enough of a spoiler that I’d ruin the book for you simply by telling you its name, so I won’t.

Setting the occasional counter example aside, usually names are nothing more than labels to hang on the characters so we can keep the players straight. For example, there’s no reason why J.K. Rowling had to give Harry Potter that particular name. She could have called him “Alan Smithson” and made it work just fine, too.

Names do have to sound right, though. That is, they must fit with readers’ preconceived notions about names for people with similar backstories. At the very least they must not clash with the backstory too severely, unless you explain why. For example, absent a good reason for doing so, you wouldn’t give your lovable Irish priest character a name like Boris Solyarin, because that doesn’t sound at all Irish. It sounds Slavic. Or, you wouldn’t give your Femme Fatale a cartoon character name like Jessica Rabbit unless, well, unless she actually is a cartoon character.

I didn’t grow up in Dublin or Belfast, and I didn’t grow up in Toon Town, so for me it’s difficult to think of names that match the backstories of characters who did. Or, frankly, characters with any backstory different from my own broad socio-economic background. Thus, names become tedious research which doesn’t help me advance the story. Goodness knows any book involves enough research just to satisfy the plot; I don’t need name research dumped on me as well!

I end up wanting to name all my characters “Bob” and just be done with it. Of course, I don’t. Here’s what I do:

Don’t sweat it too much

Honestly, if you have as much trouble with character names as I do, the best single piece of advice I can probably give you is just to relax. Once you start stressing over the perfect name for your sexy Brazilian Women’s Volleyball team captain, you’re going to find that everything you think of doesn’t match up to what you want. Everything ends up sounding stupid. But that’s just to you, because you’re the one stressed out about it. Readers are much less likely to think the name sounds stupid so long as the name is plausibly Brazilian, and plausibly female.

Just google for “Brazilian Girls Names” and pick the first thing you find that you don’t absolutely hate. Odds are it will be just fine.

Have fun with it

One thing you can do is pick a name that bears some relationship to the traits of the character in question. This can be fun, because it turns the name into a private joke between you and anyone else who is word-wise enough to get it. For instance, in the novel I’m writing this month, I have a minor character who’s a Russian woman. Her backstory involves having done some very difficult things in her past, things that were necessary. While googling “Russian girls names” I happened upon “Darya,” which at least according to that one website, comes from the Russian word for “strong.” To me, that fits. So that’s what I picked.

Take care, though. It’s easy to go overboard with this. For example, (paging Dan Brown, paging Dan Brown...) naming your red-herring character “Arringarosa,” which literally means “red herring,” is taking things just a bit far. On the other hand, Neal Stephenson made that trick work just fine in Snow Crash with the sublimely named “Hiro Protagonist,” so as always, there’s proof that you can violate any rule of writing so long as it works.

Have faith

If it helps, pick a name as above but make yourself a deal: if you really and truly believe that the perfect name is out there somewhere, just waiting to be found, then give yourself permission to change the character’s name later. Pick something so you can get going, but let it be nothing more than a placeholder until the One True Name comes along. If there is some perfect right name for the character, then you have to have faith that it’ll come to you eventually. When it does, great! Search-and-replace is your friend. But if it doesn’t, then there probably wasn’t, and again your placeholder name is just fine.

Still, a rose is a rose is a rose

The name may be invested with all manner of emotional weight for you, the writer, because you are in the intense emotional throes of writing the book. But for the reader, the name just has to satisfy two simple criteria: it has to readily identify the character, and it has to sound right enough that it doesn’t blow the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief in your story.

Compared to writing a whole novel, that’s not a tall order. So pick a name and move on. You’ve got a story to write!

November 05, 2009 00:20 UTC

Tags: character, names, backstory, J.K. Rowling, Neal Stephenson, Dan Brown, NaNoWriMo

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