Character Names and Nicknames

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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.

10 Comments


  1. // Reply

    In dialog, I also address someone with a name as a sign of frustration. I use my husband as a model. If he has irritated me, I’ll usually say his name, “Alan, don’t use the toilet paper in my bathroom to blow your nose!” or “Alan, you’re such a jerk!” or “Alan, get over here quick. You’re missing this!” I also use it when I’m looking for him and, the best time, when I say, “Alan, I love you.”

    He very RARELY says my name and usually only after I’ve complained that he never says it. Most commonly he says it when he’s calling for me. So some characters might use a name more often than others.

    I also remember using names in intimate conversations in small groups to be sure the individual knows they’re being addressed.

    The trick, I suppose, is to imagine the real situation. A few authorial brushstrokes to clarify the scene after that, I think, are allowed as long as it’s not overbearing. The problem for me as a writer is knowing when I’ve passed that tipping point between confusion about who is speaking and repeating names like a parrot.

    Good topic, Mandie. Thanks for the post.


    1. // Reply

      Excellent examples, Kecia. I was hoping some other writers would chime in with some more exceptions. Some rules I try to simplify so that they are easily understandable and give writers something concrete to look for and fix while acknowledging there are exceptions to the rules.
      I thought of several more after writing the post, but didn’t want to detract from the main idea. Although, I love that the discussion that follows a post can explore these more.
      I think as writers learn to identify overuse, they’ll become more comfortable on the reasons of why they are using a person’s name in dialogue ensuring they are using them in a meaningful way.
      Another exception I thought of is how we sometimes use people’s names when we’ve only met someone a few times as sort of an acknowledgment that we’ve met before and made an effort to remember them. Or if someone holds a position that usually fades into the background, you might use their name to signal that you not only went to the effort of knowing their name, but you appreciate all they do, even if they don’t get noticed very often. A lot can be added in a subtle way just in the use of a name.
      Thanks for providing additional examples for writers to think about. As you pointed out, it requires a balance.


  2. // Reply

    I should mention, too, that the first half of your post about switching out the pet names for different characters is a good thought. Anything we can do to differentiate our characters is helpful. A few books I’ve downloaded recently expect to give me their cast list like I’m reading a play, and I’ll be able to follow the characters as if I’m already acquainted with their personalities.

    This isn’t just freebie stuff I’m reading, but a 2016 Hugo award winner that has done this to me. I simply can’t follow that many names without references. I’d much rather read a book with two well-defined and differentiated characters than one with a dozen, faceless names. So confusing and irritating.


    1. // Reply

      Such a good point, about the pace at which an author introduces their characters. I’m the same way. I need a few characters that I can really get to know in the first several chapters before additional characters are thrown at me.
      I’m facing this struggle in the novel I’m trying to edit now. I rearranged the order of the beginning chapters, and now I’m wondering if I don’t introduce too many characters within the first two chapters. This is a tricky one to figure out, and hopefully I’ll find the balance, or get feedback from beta readers on whether there are too many people to remember right up front or not.


  3. // Reply

    Damn, i never knew that!

    i also see that you favoured a comment,
    i which i’ve always found interesting!

    methanks…

    chris


    1. // Reply

      Thanks, Chris. I always like little tips like these and hope other people find them interesting and useful too.
      I find myself spending time in the comment sections of other blogs, and I love learning new things or getting to read people’s work when I pass through those areas. I figure when I enjoy something like that, the person who wrote it should know.
      Glad you stopped by!


  4. // Reply

    Great tip… nick-names are so much more common in English than in Swedish… and having more than one is very rare… usually you are just called by your first name. But of course when writing in English you shall adapt… 🙂


    1. // Reply

      This is interesting, Björn. I didn’t know that nicknames were uncommon in Sweden, and I love learning things like this. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.


  5. // Reply

    I try to mix some action with the dialogue and insert their name there if I have more than two people involved in the conversation.

    “What are your plans for this afternoon?” Jack sat his beer glass on the bar.
    Wally pushed back his hat. “I’ve got a few more fence posts to set on the back forty.”
    “In that case, in going shopping.” Monica laughed.


    1. // Reply

      Yes, getting in the character names for the reader’s understanding is done as smoothly as that. Great example!

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