Saturday, July 1, 2017

Nicknames - a Creative Way to Name Your Characters

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“Mom, can you call me Li’l Sunflower?” 11-year-old me asked one spring.

“What?” Mom asked, amusement spreading across her face. “Why do you want me to call you Little Sunflower?”

I flushed, embarrassed to have asked. “Just because...”

That experience taught me that you can’t give yourself a nickname. Later on, a high school friend nicknamed me “Sometimes,” saying sometimes I was happy and sometimes I was sad (apparently I was a moody teen—go figure), and college roommates nicknamed me “Dictionary” for helping them with spelling. But those nicknames didn’t stick.

While you may be unable to successfully give yourself a nickname, you can successfully nickname your characters. Who can forget Ponyboy and his brothers Sodapop and Darry from The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton? Where would Ramona Quimby be without her big sister Beezus (Beatrice)?  And then there are Scout and Jem Finch and Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird and, more recently, Tris (another Beatrice) and Four (Tobias) from the Divergent series.

Since 2002, I’ve written more than 400 children’s stories published in UGP’s supplemental Sunday school materials, and after running through my favorite names, popular names, unusual names, and names based on their meanings, I realized that nicknames were an option that would help define characters and provide variety when mixed in with the given names of other characters in these stories.

A nickname could be as simple as the character’s initials, like PJ, the baby in the Family Circus comic strip, or T.S. Garp in The World According to Garp.  You could give a character a long name while providing an easier nickname, like Roni for Veronica, or Lexi for Alexandra.

The fun comes when you come up with a nickname for a character based on a quirk, trait, or habit, a nickname no one has heard before. The Harry Potter series gave us He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, The-Boy-Who-Lived, Wormtail, and Mad-Eye Moody, among others.

One caveat: nicknames based on physical appearance or background are best avoided, although if a villain comes up with such a nickname for another person in the story, that would reveal an extension of his villainy.

Consider nicknames from the animal kingdom, food, games or sports, music, weather, or anything else that comes to mind that would somehow define your character in an unusual way. And if you feel so moved, you might name a shy little girl who doesn’t want to be invisible “Li’l Sunflower.”

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