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.
2 thoughts on “Naming Your Character: Nicknames by Brenda Covert”
What a fun topic! When I was at Girl Scout camp, I got the nickname Peanut because I was the smallest kid in camp. It stuck … and there are people in the world who have no idea what my real name is. haha!
In my picture book, Willoughby and the Lumpy Bumpy Cake, Willoughby the dragon meets an ogre chef who calls him Willie. I didn’t plan that, but as I wrote, it just came out. I loved it! And if I’m able to publish more stories with Chef Onslo, he’ll give everyone a nickname.
Yes, I’ve used nicknames but they came about organically from the story I wanted to tell. I never thought about giving the character a nickname. The main character in my novel “Obsessed By A Promise” starts out as “BLUE,” called that by friends because of his piercing blue eyes. Later, when he’s rescued by a grocer, he’s called J.T., which is short for John Thomas because the grocer doesn’t feel “BLUE” is a fitting name. So he had two nicknames. His little brother was called BO.