Among the many things memorable in works of fiction, character nicknames are probably far down the list. But those informal monikers can be fun, interesting, make protagonists seem more approachable, and/or offer insight into their personalities, accomplishments, and looks.
My nickname today? “The Man Who Was Desperate for a Blog Topic During This Summer Week.”
In literature, Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels might be the king of different designations — a good thing considering how silly “Natty Bumppo” sounds. He’s known as Hawkeye and La Longue Carabine (The Long Rifle) in The Last of the Mohicans, by the books’ titles in The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder, as “the trapper” and “the old man” in The Prairie, etc.
Hopefully no one who met The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne called him Natty…
Another character with more than one nickname is Lord Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Voldemort (born Tom Marvolo Riddle) is called “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” and “The Dark Lord,” among other things. Some of the series’ other characters have nicknames such as “The Boy Who Lived” (Harry himself) and “Mad-Eye” (Alastor Moody).
Speaking of eye issues, there’s the patch-wearing Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn in Charles Portis’ novel True Grit. (Sadly, John Wayne didn’t portray another rooster — Chanticleer of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Was the “Duke” too American for that role?)
Another novel with various nicknames is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch, Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, Arthur “Boo” Radley (who those kids initially feared)…
There are also many casual monikers in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, another novel of the American South. Imogene “Idgie” Threadgoode, the Buddy character (“Stump”) who lost his arm in a railroad accident, the hobo “Smokey Lonesome” Phillips, “Big George”…
Which reminds me of “Chicken George” (George Lea), who trained chickens in Alex Haley’s Roots.
Charles Dickens’ novels also have a number of nicknamed characters: the pickpocketing Artful Dodger (Jack Dawkins) of Oliver Twist, Tiny Tim (Tim Cratchit) of A Christmas Carol, Pip (Philip Pirrip) of Great Expectations…
And if you haven’t overdosed on “P” and “i” names, there’s Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi — which is longer than 3.14 pages when the tiger character doesn’t eat most of the book.
Then there are the Mirabal sisters (Las Mariposas — The Butterflies) from Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, which partly fictionalizes the story of those brave opponents to Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.
A couple more examples: Captain “Aarfy” Aardvaark of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and the wondrous baseball player Roy Hobbs whose nickname is the title of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. Incidentally, “Roy Hobbs” was a moniker mix of real-life baseball legends Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb — who had more hits than Taylor Swift, but less romantic angst on YouTube.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that countless characters have predictable nicknames: Sue for Susan, Jim for James, etc.
What are your favorite nicknames in literature?
Here’s a somewhat-related 2015 post about author aliases.
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at email@example.com to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.