A few weeks back, Michaeline and Justine did excellent back-to-back posts on the importance of choosing the right character name. Today, I want to talk about the names that characters choose for other characters on the page. Whether a pet or nickname, what our characters call one another has the potential to advance the plot, define a character, or show character arc.
As an example: I had a beloved aunt who used to refer to her husband by his last name when she was around our family. It was always done with a tone of affectionate humor, like a pet name. If anyone else had done this, I would have thought it odd, but given my aunt’s personality, it seemed like a natural thing for her to do. By using her husband’s last name when referring to him, she seemed to be saying, yes, I love my husband and I’ve taken his name in marriage, but he does not own me. To me, it was a declaration of independence.
At sixteen, I stayed with the same aunt and her husband in Arizona. She still occasionally used his last name (they bantered back and forth a lot with a dry, wry sort of humor), but for the most part it was “Bill this” and “Bill that”. This “new” affection for him came as quite a shock to me, and it dawned then that perhaps she used the cavalier reference around her family to hide the depth of her feelings for a husband her brothers did not like.
When Cheyenne, too, began to refer to Reed by his last name, I wasn’t surprised. She’s rather ambivalent about Reed McConnell, not sure whether he is friend or foe. She also has a deep need to assert herself with her mother’s executor. He controls the estate and holds a certain amount of power over her. Using his last name is an equalizer–it shifts the power to a degree (at least in her mind).
As the story has progressed, I’ve realized that there is another reason Cheyenne continues to call Reed “McConnell”. Doing so allows her to hide her growing attraction to him. When she finally calls Reed by his first name, it signals a turning point in their relationship (and in the story). She’s fallen for him and can’t hide it anymore.
Having characters use alternate labels for each other can serve in other ways. For example:
- Until the last scene, Hawk refers to Cheyenne as “Miss Fancy Jeans”. He believes her to be vain, superficial, and a gold digger. While the name in and of itself isn’t derogatory, the way he wields it, is. He uses it to paint Cheyenne in a negative light to the town’s people.
- Cheyenne uses the term “kid” for River initially. As she warms up to the child, the monikers warm up, too.
What we call our characters is important; what our characters call each other can be infused with meaning. Do your characters use nick/pet names for other characters? If so, do the names have an underlying purpose in the story?