Appendix 1: Nicknames, Pet Names, Titles, and other Addenda
Let me preface this by saying that this tutorial was complete, and that I decided to make a new mini-tutorial on a very similar subject. Still, it had to be done: after seeing one too many badly abbreviated names in my internet travels and being nauseated by prophetic titles, bad job descriptions, and many instances of being completely ignorant of how feudal rankings actually work, my brain rebelled, held my fingers at glue-gun point, and forced me to write another chapter.
This appendix contains snark, historical information which may not be perfectly accurate if you have a specific era or country in mind, the history of the name Jennifer, a fan disappointment, an unreliable narrator, nouns as names, and "nicknaming privileges."
Nicknames and Their Species: an Introduction to Their Creation, Care and Use.
Part A: Short forms of given names
At some point in most people's life, they will have a nickname of some sort, bestowed on them by family or friends. Most of the time it's a short or childish way of saying their name, or their name is one that their parents gave them in the knowledge that it could be shortened. I cannot tell you how many Jessicas, Samanthas, and Alexandras I have met in my years of schooling, and most of them prefer some short variation of their name. This is (usually) because names that have three or more syllables can become a mouthful for parents to yell when they want the kid to come inside, or they don't fit well on test papers, or what have you. Guys get this too: most of the Alexanders, Zacharys, and Christians that I've ever met get their names shortened. Again, it's the length of the name, combined with the fact that all of the names I've listed above are "classics," common in nearly every generation. These are not trendy names, but variant spellings of both them and their common nicknames are often trendy and therefore do not translate well to settings removed in time and place from the modern day.
Just a quick list to show you what I mean:
Alexandra/Alexandria: Alex (Masculine – adopted by young tomboys), Alexa or Alexia (slightly more feminine, good for most settings), Lexie (Trendy, especially when spelled "Lexi" and should be used with caution outside of modern settings), and Sandra, sometimes known as Sandy, (slightly dated, good for characters born prior to approximately the late 80's.)
Since Alexandra comes form Alexander anyway, you get Alex, (classic) Lex, (Luthor) Zander or Xander, (trendy for characters ostensibly born in the 80's,) and, Sandy (Fairly dated and likely to be misread as a female name right now: boys born in the 50's and 60's might have it.)
Samuel: Sam or Sammie, same as with the feminine variant Samantha. Because this name is shorter, it gets elaborated as often as shortened, so expect a lot of masculine and feminine names that get shortened to "Sam" to be completely different. This is an example of a nickname that is as popular or more popular than the long given name.
Zachary: This is a name that gets a lot of historical use, but still carries through to today. There are variants such as Zachariah (biblical, then popular during the protestant reformation and a large portion of the 1700's,) but the reason this name was included is because of the vast amount of different spellings that can be used for both the full name and the short form. Calling the Zacharys in your life "Zach" or "Zack" is fairly common in the past few decades, but variant spellings such as "Zak" can really date your story due to the "trendiness" of the name.
Jennifer: This name really shows the date of your story. "Jennifer" originally comes from Guinevere, wife of King Arthur and lover of Sir Launcelot, and possessor of the traits that make names from legends very popular. The number of variant spellings of Guinevere is astounding.I'm going to give you a breakdown of the variations so you can see how the name changes over time and how the modern "nicknames," which are often used as given names, evolved.
Gwenhwyfar: Welsh and popular during the middle ages. Anglicized to Guinevere. Probably the most common nickname for these names is "Gwen" which has been used occasionally for several centuries.
Ginevra: It's Italian and kind of dated: I wouldn't expect a character born after, say, the 1950's to have it, unless they were named after an older relative. I would expect it to be re-popularized by the Harry Potter series, except most of the fanbrats can't be bothered to remember that this is Ginny's given name.
Jennifer: First started to be popular in the early 20th century, according to my research. Common nicknames include Jenny (fairly popular since the 1960's), Jennie (most common before the 1900's), Jeni or Jenni (modern and very trendy), Jenna (since the 1980's), Jen or Jenn (Both slightly modern but probably acceptable for earlier time periods), and Jenae (possibly archaic, but you could make it fly in multiple settings due to the useful latinate ending.)
All right, that's an extraordinary amount of nicknames. As a general rule of thumb, the older a name is, the more variant spellings it will have, the more commonly accepted nicknames it will possess, and the more of those nicknames will be in use as given names. The length of a name and the number of unique sounds (the J, for example, on Jennifer) are also contributing factors, as is enduring popularity.
Most nicknames are a longer name shortened to a distinct sound, often near the beginning, and many have a diminutive ending such as –ie, which is currently often replaced with a y or an i.
Part B: Nouns and other memorables
Sometimes, however, a character's given name is just too embarrassing and un-shortenable to use. This could be because they have an archaic name such as Eustace or Agatha, because they have a name that people continually mispronounce because it seems foreign to their peers, or because they have a given name which is just too trendy and out there. Get some yearbooks for elementary and middle school classes between about 1998 and the current day and I guarantee you will find names that, in an effort to be unique, have become unpronounceable to the classmates of the child saddled with them.
Sometimes this means that a child goes with their middle name (if it's a girl, more often than not its Marie or Elizabeth,) or some form of their last names, but sometimes it means that the other kids find something else to call them by.
As often as not, this makes no sense. It doesn't necessarily have to in real life, but when you have a character named Squirrel (I have seen that as a nickname for Cyril, I kid you not,) or named Boots, you've got to have some idea where it came from, even if you never tell the audience.
These names are, however, usually not as "cool" as people often paint them – a kid is more likely to be called Trick or Kitty than something like "Stryker" or "Venom," or anything you might see on a superhero or supervillian. Nicknames usually happen during childhood and early adolescence, so they're usually simple, because otherwise they defeat the purpose of having a nickname.
Most importantly, keep in mind that if you give a character a nickname based off of something that they did or that they like, it's going to fall flat unless they stood out from anyone else who likes the same things while doing it. Calling a girl "Pinkie" because that's her favorite color usually falls flat – if she's so overboard that she refused to wear clothes that weren't pink or use yellow pencils, then it becomes characterization rather than a pointless bit of trivia.
Part C: When to use them
Last but not least, a lot of people grow out of nicknames. Or they have different ones from their family, who they've known since birth, and their friends, who they might have met last summer or have been raised with from their kindergarten years. Parents and older relatives generally keep the right to call kids by nicknames that were adorable for a few years when they were in preschool or kindergarten, and which the child (or adult) in question has grown tired of.
On the other hands, parents might object to a child's shortening their given name, no matter how embarrassing it may be, and call them by their full name, even in public. In this case, the nicknames are probably given to a kid by their friends. Generally, if the use of the nickname is somewhat embarrassing to the character, it's probably something family or very, very old friends get to use. If the character thinks it's cool, it's probably something that their peers call them.
Using nicknames in a story, however much it may imitate real life, can lead to some audience confusion, because it is, essentially, an extra character name to keep track of. If everyone in the cast has nicknames, or worse, multiple nicknames, it can easily feel like an author is swamping the readers with an enormous indistinguishable character list.
In order to keep this confusion to a minimum, there are two major steps:
1. Know who is narrating.
Your narrator might be the main protagonist, a random passerby, a third-person omniscient narrator who can get inside the head of any character that they please, or a limited third person narrator who only gets to hitch a ride in the thoughts of one character: or even one that reads no minds, but sees all the action. Once you've chosen a method of narrating and stuck to it, you should make sure that all names given in the narration are consistent by determining which name is a single character's "identity" to the narrator. This is fairly easy for a first person narrator, who might have a nickname for her best friend and her baby brother, never call her parents anything but Mom and Dad, and address her peers by their first names and her teachers by their last names. However, if you are a third person omniscient narrator, you should stick to only using the names that each character thinks of themselves as, and if you are a third person limited narrator, use the names that the character you are following things of them as.
I'm going to narrate the same paragraph in the three different voices so you can see the differences.
First person: I turned around to look where Suzy was pointing, but all I saw was that freckled kid with the glasses from homeroom. Since he certainly couldn't be the person who had her fanning her face and grinning madly, I leaned out from behind Mags' locker to check the rest of the hall. I saw Mr. Strumpfel – definitely not who I was looking for – and then I wondered how I could have been so blind. The guy who I had barely noticed, reading the bulletin board, had just turned around.
I purposefully chose the names that Katie would call people out loud and omitted the names of people whose names she couldn't remember or didn't know yet. Katie calls Magdaline, who is known as Maggie to most of the school, as "Mags," and hardly ever talks to James Johnson, so she doesn't remember his name right away.
Third Omniscient: Katie turned around to look where Suzy was pointing, but all that she saw was James Johnson, from her homeroom. Since he certainly couldn't be the person who had Suzy fanning her face and grinning madly, Katie leaned out from behind Magdaline's locker to check the rest of the hall. She saw her biology teacher, Cleve Strumpfel – definitely not who she was looking for – and then she wondered how she could have been so blind. Mason, who she had barely noticed reading the bulletin board, had just turned around.
Omniscient is the hardest voice to pull off without going too far into everything. Both James Johnson and Magdaline actually think of themselves as their full names, James because his last name is the only way to differentiate him from the other boys named James in the school and Magdaline because she actually thinks her given name is very pretty and dignified. Cleve Strumpfel's last name was added not because he thinks of himself as his full name, but because he, like James Johnson, is tangential to the plot and to make it obvious that he was a teacher, not a student.
Third Limited: Katie turned around to look where Suzy was pointing, but all that she saw was Jimmy, from her homeroom. Since he certainly couldn't be the person who had Suzy fanning her face and grinning madly, Katie leaned out from behind Maggie's locker to check the rest of the hall. She saw Mr. Strumpfel – definitely not who she was looking for – and then she wondered how she could have been so blind. The guy who she had barely noticed, reading the bulletin board, had just turned around.
And these are the names that most of the school knows the characters by. I could also have chosen use the names that Katie would use (as if my narrator were someone going for a ride in her brain and watching everything through her perceptions.)
2. Know who is "allowed" to use the name.
It seems self-evident, but some people will not be allowed to use a nickname because they're not close enough to a character. And some people will have a name that only one specific person, such as a best friend, a single family member, or a lover, would use. Figure out how good of terms a character is on with the character you have nicknamed before you let them use the nickname: if they aren't a friend, they might be mocking the character, or they might be attempting and failing to integrate themselves with your character's circle of friends.
A change in whether or not someone can use a nickname – or a change of what name a character refers to another by to other people – usually comes with a change in the nature of their relationship. Maybe Katie never used to call Magdaline "Mags" until they became really good friends last summer as girl scout camp councilors, and Suzy, who was a lifeguard at a local pool instead, still refers to her as "Maggie" because even though Katie considers her to be part of their inner circle of friends now, Suzy doesn't.
This is extremely helpful when switching perspectives (Suzy may narrate another chapter, and the narration referring to "Mags" will have to be changed to refer to "Maggie" instead,) or when writing dialogue. You can consistently refer to characters in dialogue as names that you don't usually use during narration and be able to avoid confusing the reader if you construct your sentences carefully and be certain to use dialogue tags. You can even get away with having different people refer to a character differently in their respective dialogue: provided that you've written clearly, your readers will be able to tell who is talking and remember how well that character knows the person they're talking about.