Wednesday, October 6

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, October 06, 2010 17 comments
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
B. father
C. nieces and nephews
D. brother
E. school chums
F. spouse

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


  1. My latest protag goes by a nickname!

  2. That's great advice! A nickname gives a character history without the backstory, and adds another level to the relationship.

    I never had a nickname, unless you count the girl in college who called me Kelly. She just got my name wrong, but refused to use the right name when I corrected her. Half the people in our class thought my name was Kelly.

  3. I especially love the names given by your nieces and nephews. The ones from school chums are wonderful too. There is affection and shared identities.

    My unpleasant nicknames were pretty predictable: four eyes, fatty; but I was never bothered by them. I like the nicknames given by people who want to have a special name for me. Some of them may not be any less obvious than the given by bullies: Squirrel or Rabbit because of my prominent front teeth, but I like them.

    My newest nickname is given by my critique group: Y2 without the K, short form Y2. Love it. Makes me feel accepted.

    In my Middle Grade novel, the protag and her best friend has a special name for each other.

  4. What a cool post, and you're so right that all kinds of history and layers could be read into the kind of nickname a character calls another.

  5. thanks for visiting me today via AMY. i'm now following your blog! :)

  6. LOL about the unemployable adult. :) You always give the best suggestions for characterization.

  7. Yay, I got all of them right. :)

    Thank you -- this is such a wonderful post. There are so many things said and unsaid with nicknames. Though not everybody has a nickname (I do have a handful), they do say so much about both the name-giver and the person named.

  8. Holly: excellent. I guess that means the pattern is pretty clear of what sorts of people give us certain types of nickneames.

    Elle: My MC has several, and each relative has a different pet name for her: darling, dearest, love, pumpkin, doodlebug. With my large-ish cast of family, it helps keep straight who's talking.

    Amy: That's a great story. You should totally use that in a piece of fiction.

    I had a doppleganger in college--another girl who looked like me (though she's more blonde), so I had strangers run up yelling "Anne!" and almost hug me before realizing I'm not Anne.

  9. Yat-Yee: Y2 is the coolest! A great riff on your hyphenated first name. I got the "Lenzel" nickname from a very bizarre typo (orig Lanzel) on a piece of campus mail in college. My friend Jon thought is was awesome and made it stick all 4 years of college. Silly, but made me feel loved, as you say.

    Tina: pet names and nicknames summarize a relationship in a word, and that's powerful.

    Tricia: Indeed. It was my old college nickname Lenzel (from a typo on campus mail) rearing its head on Facebook that brought this idea to mind.

  10. Amie: welcome, and thanks for the follow!

    Janet: People do judge us by our names. I still snicker every time I pass a professor's office and see "Muffy" on her nameplate. How does she get her students to take her seriously?

    Sandy: You're right that some go through life nicknameless and that says something, too. I had a few friends like that, usually gentle souls not prone to joking around, just sweeties you couldn't in good conscience tease.

  11. Excellent post!!!
    I loved it, and I loved how you tied it in with writing. Thank you!
    What I think is interesting is how nicknames can change, for instance our oldest neice was called "Booger" which turned into "Boogerbear" which turned into "Bear" and then "J-Bear", and then "Jay" and then "Jay-Princess" and now just "Jess."

  12. Loved this post, Laurel!

    When one of my characters is troubled, he reverts to calling his fiancee her childhood nickname.

    Susan :)

  13. Boy, I should be more creative with my nicknames. I think I've only ever called you "Laurel."


  14. Tyrean: morphing nicknames are funny, aren't they? Glad you found the post useful.

    Susan: isn't it cool how one word can encapsulate a relationship?

    Simon: Hmm. Well, you've called me the editrix at turns, how about Trixie? *snarf* I'd totally answer to that. :-)

  15. Hey, I found you through Kelly Lyman's blog. I love using names of my family members in my stories. My last name is Eagar so when I have to use the word Eager I usually change the spelling so that my last name is throughout the novel, whatever it's about. Thanks for your blog!