People often come with nicknames, so why not give your characters a nickname? Let me be perfectly small ‘f’ frank. It’s generally a bad idea. I’ll start with the reasons people get nicknames.
My parents were very careful in choosing the name ‘Phyllis.’ There’s not a lot you can warp it into. What does tend to happen is that sometimes people who really like me turn it into ‘Phyl.’ I don’t mind that. In fact, when it started to happen in high school, I couldn’t figure out why I was comfortable with it. I later found a few of my dad’s diaries and learned that he called me ‘Phyl’ until I was two; after three sons, it was a big adjustment for him to have a daughter. Then I needed surgery, and it became ‘Phyllis.’ The other variation is ‘Philly,’ which I absolutely hate. I have never been a horse, and the diminutive is insulting even without that connotation. You can call me ‘Phyl,’ just don’t call me ‘doctor.’
And therein lies the first problem with giving a fictional character a nickname. Unless it’s glaringly obvious to the reader why the nickname exists, you as the writer will have to give a sufficient explanation. Maybe you’re a hotshot writer who can make it interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention–if not, you’re taking a huge risk.
Many nicknames people ‘give’ to other people are not flattering. ‘Extra ugly creepy guy,’ comes to mind. The person in question is just that to the person who ‘gave’ him the nickname. Real names are often not used, except to identify who the nickname is aimed at. Is your character sufficiently ugly and creepy to warrant that reaction from the other characters? Aren’t there enough people like that in real life? Just how realistic do you want him (or her) to be? With nicknames, it’s too easy to turn your character into a caricature instead of someone believable.
Probably the best character to use a nickname for is one who is supposed to remain nameless as part of the story line. ‘The homeless man’ in our back alley, or ‘the baglady’ with her shopping cart, or ‘Sweetie,’ the prostitute, or ‘bus driver number six.’ Then there are objects used as characters, such as the ‘Chucky’ (a diminuative of ‘Chuck’) doll. Nicknames are fraught with peril, especially when you encounter a ‘politically correct’ reader who may object that a character is simply known as ‘four eyes’ or ‘baldy.’ It’s only fitting to objectify your characters in such a manner if other characters in the story do.
You don’t have to respect your characters unless they’re worthy of that respect–just like in real life. (I find those who say ‘respect your elders’ tend to be older people who fail to earn that respect, or abuse it when they’ve got it.) If a nickname is justified, then make sure your reader understands that. If you’re a good writer, you can find a way to do it–but it’s probably better not to waste the ink. 😉
Thanks for reading.
Phyllis K Twombly 🙂