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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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