Writing last week’s piece about character names led to me thinking about another challenge for the author on the naming front (and I’m still ignoring the biggest of all naming challenges here, Titles).
In life, most of us know several people who have at some point in their life stopped being referred to by some common derivation of their first name, and instead become known by either another name, or a word not usually thought of as a name at all.
I, for example, have been known as all of: Big J, Sensibility, The Squirrel, Pen, Elmo, Auntie (though my brother has no children), Shylock … and a few things besides.
Because the thing about nicknames is they tend to be group-specific. Most of my friends wouldn’t know who Shylock is, but try persuading Antonio (not her real name either) to use anything else. When I named this blog, my writing pals didn’t bat an eyelid, but everyone else said “Who’s Elmo?”.
The other thing is, nicknames tend to arise organically. You start off calling someone by their given name, then shorten it a bit, then one day you make a mistake or you’re gently teasing them about some aspect of their personality/life/whatever and suddenly you are calling them The Squirrel.
When it comes to authors, we tend to jump in somewhere in the middle of the story. Apart from the odd David Copperfield type epic, we don’t start at birth (and even if we do, it’s only one character’s birth and there are other fully-formed characters to name), so we jump in where people have already acquired nicknames, pet names and terms of endearment with those around them. Somehow we have to find these names, use them and make them seem natural. We might at some point be forced (or allowed) to give the back-story, but equally we might not.
Even if we do, only his school friends will call David “Monty” so the reader is going to have to work out that they are one and the same guy and still get to know David/Monty at the same rate and intimacy we need for the story to succeed. If you’ve ever read Crime and Punishment, I think you’ll agree that having a character referred to by three different names at different times is confusing!
So, what do we do? Well, many authors just avoid the problem and stick to one name. Does anyone call Harry Potter anything other than Harry (or occasionally “Potter”)? No. In spite of the fact that anyone who has been within 5 miles of an English Boarding School knows you can’t survive so much as a term without gaining some convoluted and probably offensive nickname, noone in that series seems to come off with worse than a “nearly-headless” or “moaning” stuck in front of their real name. It’s artifice, but it saves confusion.
But I’m hoping there are ways to make it work. I’ve found it easier to slide terms of endearment into Eric than I thought I would, and as for nicknames and pet names, I suppose it’s a question of working harder on back-story. After all, if you get to know the character well enough, maybe you give him a nickname yourself!