I've been called a lot of things besides my given name at various stages of my life: shortened forms of my name, teasing terms about some undesirable trait, cozy pet names, cool nicknames, and long-story monikers.
Those nicknames often say more about my relationship with the name giver than about my personality per se. Try this little quiz to see what I mean.
Match the set of nicknames with the name-giver.
1. Lore, string bean, Ethel
2. Lars, lone xylophone, Lenzel, Lorolla
3. four-eyes, coral-doral, brainiac, freak
4. blossom, love, hon
5. Laurie, pumpkin, bird, sweetie
6. whirl, whoa-whoa, wa-wul
A. school bullies
C. nieces and nephews
E. school chums
Answers at the bottom of this post.
How'd you do? Notice patterns?
A sibling loves and hates you and often calls you the strangest things based on your shared history. Parental pet names tend to be sweet and innocent, while spouses and lovers use more poetic or even suggestive terms of endearment. Tiny people often can't pronounce our names, especially if they are chock full of Ls and Rs. Bullies target qualities they don't like, or try to concoct cruel rhymes (in my case, these tended to make the bully sound stupid instead of cruel). Our friends give us nicknames that create our identities in our peer group and give us a sense of belonging--often tied to shared history or shared associations. For instance, we called my college friend Dave "Darth," because his last name was Vater. He relished it, though his expertise was Chewbacca impressions. But you get the idea.
Pet names and nicknames in the mouths of your secondary characters can communicate lots in a small amount of space. Not only the relationship, but the level of education, temperament, and background. For example, my MC's grandfathers call her "love" and "pumpkin." Pretty obvious which one's a Brit and which one's American, right?
Nicknames friends give can be shorthand for shared interests or "long-stories" that can be revealed over the course of a novel. In John Green's Paper Towns, Quentin and Ben call their friend Marcus "Radar" for such a hilariously convoluted reason, you can't help but laugh and like these guys.
If you find yourself drawn to weird names, I challenge you to consider instead giving your character a weird or funky or long-story nickname instead. Because you plucky YA heroine is going to be an unemployable adult if she's genuinely named Shimmer. Just sayin'.
Tell me about your experience with nicknames and pet names. How do you use them in your writing?
Quiz answers: 1. D 2. E 3. A 4. F 5. B 6. C