At 11 years of age, I wanted to be a Native American and live in a tepee. I thought of the perfect name too. “Mom,” I asked, “can you call me Li’l Sunflower?”
Mom seemed both surprised and amused. “Why do you want me to call you Little Sunflower?”
“Just because…” My voice trailed away as my face burned hot.
No one ever did call me Li’l Sunflower.
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.
Between 2002 and 2016, I wrote more than 400 children’s stories published by Union Gospel Press in their supplemental Sunday school materials. 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.
A nickname could be as simple as the character’s initials, like PJ, the baby in the Family Circus comic strip. A character with a long name could have a shortened version as a nickname, like Roni for Veronica, or Jed for Jedediah.
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 the world He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, The-Boy-Who-Lived, Wormtail, and Mad-Eye Moody, among others.
What Not To Do:
Nicknames based on physical appearance or background are best avoided, although if your antagonist comes up with such a nickname for another character in the story, it could reveal an extension of his or her villainy.
What Works as a Nickname:
You might choose a name from the animal kingdom, favorite foods, games or sports, music, weather, or anything else that comes to mind that will somehow define your character. And you might name a shy girl who wants to be noticed “Li’l Sunflower.”
Have you ever used a nickname in your novel or picture book? How did you pick it? What nickname will you choose for your protagonist or antagonist? Please let us know in the comments.