Kat: Name Calling

Hello_my_name_is_sticker_svgA 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?


14 thoughts on “Kat: Name Calling

  1. I may be remembering this wrong, but I just read (listened to) The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh and I’m pretty sure at the beginning of the book (which I admittedly started a few weeks ago and might not remember perfectly), when Frances, the main character, marries Edwin, she refers to him as “Edwin” to other people until much later, when she realizes she loves him. Then she refers to him as “my husband.” Not quite names, per se, but definitely substituting a name for something else more significant. He’s no long just “Edwin” to her.

    • I like that–I think it shows she has a deep respect for him (as well a high value for the role he plays in her life). I’ve noticed that the H & H usually have different “public” names in the historical romance–dictated by the customs of the times, of course (I think Dane had at least two formal names that related to his position). Wonder what those people called each other in the bedroom?

      • Somebody blogged about that somewhere, and the consensus was that they would typically use the woman’s given name, and the man’s title name. So if he’s Lord Smith, she would call him Smith everywhere, except possibly the bedroom, where she would use his first name.

        If they’re not titled, then they would just use first names.

  2. Oh, that is a good call! In Komarr (or maybe A Civil Campaign), there’s a . . . I suppose you’d call her a gentlewoman (Ekaterin), and a Count (Miles Vorkosigan), and they are very formal with each other because they don’t know each other yet. They both go through struggles in their heads, though, about what they can call each other. I think she says, “Miles, no Lord Vorkosigan — no dammit, he can be Miles in my head” and he is dismayed when his brother’s houseguest is already on a first-name basis with Ekaterin.

    I may be remembering it wrong. But it highlighted the difference between social manners, and the reality of their hearts. Very nice touch. I think women call men they love by their last names to show equality, and maybe to show how tough the women themselves are by not succumbing to gooey nicknames. But who knows what goes on between a couple behind closed doors? That brusque “Oy, Kennedy!” may turn into “Oh, pookie-bear!”

    There’s a slightly different vibe when the guy is calling the woman by her last name. That reluctance to admit to the world that they are involved is still there. I do think there’s also a sense of being a buddy or a sense of equality, too.

    Men can be such tender, vulnerable creatures, and they use those mannerisms to put people off the scent, I think (-:. It’s a fun trope, because it speaks so much just using a couple of names.

    I can still hear Peabody bellow “Emerson!” across the Egyptian sands . . . . (Amelia Peabody Emerson — an Egyptian archaelogist wrote the mysteries, and it’s such a good series, but I’m blanking out on it right now . . . .)

  3. So far, in my WIP, the hero just calls the heroine by her first name. My hero’s employees all call him “Coach,” because he used to play football. But my heroine calls him Coach only when she’s mad at him or poking fun of him. Otherwise, she calls him by his real first name. Now I’m thinking of having her call him “pookie-bear.” I think these people need nicknames.

  4. My maternal grandfather wanted to be called John R. His name was John Richard and always said, “That’s my name. Why would I want to be called anything else.” The only people who called him another name were his 4 children. However, my mother always referred to him as John R. My sister’s name is Lynn and when my brother-in-law (her husband) is annoyed with her, he calls her Lint, which I think is hilarious.

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