Knickerbocker Dirty Neck, Johnny Bottles, Dolly Dimples, and Redtop
At five-years-old, Mother handed me a crisp new Lincoln and rattled off three essentials. First stop, the butcher for a pound of chuck-chop, then on to the grocery store for hamburger buns, and a bottle of ketchup. Heinz Ketchup. I recited the list over and over while I double-timed it down Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City. Life was simpler back then on the cobblestone streets and idyllic visage of railroad apartment buildings, Sullivan’s Bar, and Grandma leaning out the open second story window, speaking Italian to passersby. (Today if parents sent a five-year-old alone to the store, they’d be locked up.)
The tang of the East River wafted up my nose as I marched with purpose. Grandma watched the traffic from her perch and yelled for me to cross when the coast was clear. The traffic was the least of my worries. I kept my eyes peeled for Redtop, the red-haired neighborhood bully who skulked the streets ready to inflict torment, and the elusive Knickerbocker Dirty Neck. Though I never met the latter, I always imagined a scary, lanky, male basketball player with crud on his neck, lurking in an alley between buildings. It’s a name I never forgot and hoped to one day use for a character.
So, how do authors choose fictional character names? I doubt they pluck them out of a hat. Some names that authors foist onto characters have inherent meaning. Let’s examine this, Dickens-style. In the 19th century, the renowned author imposed illuminating monikers on his characters. Why? Well, unforgettable names like Tiny Tim, Artful Dodger, Mr. Bumble, Fezziwig, and Stryver, are not only interesting, they also vividly describe the characters themselves. Charles Dickens also appeared to have chosen names that gave his stories pizzazz. This method kept his readers wanting more.
Skip ahead from Victorian times to present day. J.K. Rowling carefully chose her characters’ names for the Harry Potter books too. She tapped into different fields of study to bestow just the right designations. She drew from literature, mythology, history, astronomy, and countless international languages. For instance, Hermione is the name of the patron saint of high magic in Greek mythology. Fitting for Hermione Granger who is at the top of her class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Sirius Black and his entire family have names based on celestial objects.
Some authors use alliteration to name characters. Same letter for first and last name. J.K. Rowling stitched together names like Minerva McGonagall, Luna Lovegood, and Cho Chang. Other authors use tautonyms, loosely borrowed from botany and zoology. Simply put, it is reduplication, a technique that uses the same first and last name. Think Humbert Humbert, the protagonist villain in Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Lolita.
Not giving a proper name to your character can also be acceptable and memorable. Taking a page out of Dicken’s again, consider adopting no proper name, like the Ghost of Christmas Past. Or check out the Brothers Grimm fairytales. A few featured no-names are the Huntsman, the Magic Mirror, and Little Brother. Getting back to the Harry Potter series, though Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington is properly named, he is often referred to as Nearly Headless Nick.
Circling back to the beginning of this whole naming phenomenon, giving your character only a nickname is another strategy. Johnny Bottles was my dad’s alias because as a kid, he collected bottles for return, to redeem the deposit initially paid by the person who tossed the bottle. I think this idea in the right place and story could make for an interesting character. Enter the show don’t tell tactic. The name shows the reader something about the character without saying it. He’s associated with bottles somehow. What is that association? What kind of bottles? It’s intriguing.
Dolly Dimples is another interesting nickname originally given to a real-life baby, who at the time looked like a doll with big dimples. From the name alone, the reader immediately gets a sense of cute, sweet, and loveable. A Shirley Temple-ish image. What would that mean to other characters? Is the child a target for kidnappers or other evil doers? Does the nickname stick as the child grows up? How would you flesh out this character if you had chosen this name?
Redtop is an obvious nickname, conjuring the vision of someone with red hair. If deemed a red-haired bully without further, immediate explanation, the reader may wonder if the character turned into a bully because he or she was bullied due to their red-haired appearance. The Redtop character in one of my books keeps his red hair in a ponytail. Though he’s not a bully per say, he’s an unpleasant and nosy character who draws suspicion due to his improper questions and awkward mannerisms. I used the nickname but spun the character in a different direction.
Knickerbocker Dirty Neck is one of those cool and unusual names that implies something undesirable about the character. Who is this character? Why does he/she have a dirty neck? Is the character homeless? Poor? The name suggests that possibly this character is damaged in some way. It’s off-putting yet the reader may sympathize with Knickerbocker Dirty Neck and wonder if the character has any redeeming qualities.
I’m no Dickens or J.K. Rowling, but like them, I enjoy selecting character names with deeper meaning that coincide with the inherent nature of the character I’m building. Great Grandma Georgina Gardenia, for instance, is a character who is steeped in the history, science, and legend of flowers from the realm she calls home. I also used alliteration for the name, purposely.
I cherry-pick names by thinking outside the box too.
Mr. Whortleberry, whose name sounds like a wort, instantly infers a negative description.
Damon Stone rolls off the tongue easily. My immediate reaction to this name is a handsome, too-cool-to-care-what-anyone-thinks-of-him, upstanding guy.
Another approach I apply when deciding on a character’s name is to put two uncommon names together like, Conrad Ott. I once had a teacher named Mr. Ott. The surname was so odd it stuck with me. I bypassed Mr. Ott’s first name and opted for Conrad. The name Conrad Ott says nothing about the character except that the last name is odd, so maybe he’s odd too.
Keep in mind that whatever names you prefer for the characters in your WIP, you can always change them if another name suits them better. Though character names are important, the meat and bones of the story must be substantive too or the name loses meaning.
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet."