A common error in writing revolves around the use of a character’s name and their nicknames in a story. Luckily this is a simple problem to track down and fix, and once you know what the problem is, it’s quite easy to avoid in future pieces.
The Problem: As characters are developed in a story, it is a natural tendency for writers to give them nicknames, sometimes even more than one. For example, in the current novel I’m writing my protagonist’s name is Kaitlynn and she also goes by Kat (pronounced Cat) and Kitty. So what’s the problem? The problem begins when a writer starts swapping back and forth between the names.
If I have a scene where Kat is going hiking with her friends in the forest, but before Kaitlynn leaves the house, she picks up a camera to document their journey. When Kitty meets up with her friends she takes a picture of them before they enter the forest. But Kat doesn’t discover until she gets home that she caught more in the photograph than just a picture of her friends. When Kaitlynn gets home and downloads her photos from the day, she discovers an unexpected figure lurking in the background.
When I switch back and forth between all three versions of Kaitlynn’s name in one paragraph it becomes clear why this is a problem. It can become confusing about who I’m talking about, and why I’m referring to her by different names.
The Fix: Character name consistency is the goal when fixing this issue. The first thing to remember is the narrator should only refer to a character by one name. In my current novel, the narrator always uses the name Kaitlynn. Her friends and family call her Kat, and her grandfather and only her grandfather calls her Kitty. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Someone like her mother might normally refer to her as Kat, and then when she is upset with Kaitlynn, she might refer to her by her full name. In comparison, a colleague could always call her Kaitlynn, and the switch to calling her Kat might show a change in their relationship and indicate that they are becoming closer.
Bonus Tip: The use of names can become an issue in dialogue. It’s easy when writing to forget when we actually use other people’s names when we are speaking to them. As a consequence, names are frequently overused in dialogue.
Think about conversations you have with other people and how frequently they refer to you by name. I have close friends and family who I rarely hear utter my name when we speak, and when they actually say, “Mandie,” I think, Oh crap. What did I do? Pet names are a little different and usually replace real names in conversations, so someone might refer to you as honey or sweetie.
In general, when we speak to people we don’t usually call them by their name unless we’re trying to get their attention. In writing, there’s another time when we will use a person’s name in dialogue because we don’t have the easy access of non-verbal cues like being able to see one character making eye contact with another. When there are more than two people in a given scene, names help distinguish to whom a character is speaking.
Once you identify these errors, they are easy to fix and will make your piece stronger. Better yet, it will be easier to avoid making them in the future.