• Joel Ryan

How Louis Sachar's "Holes" and Other Stories Use Names and Nicknames to Develop Characters

Image via Walt Disney Studios

Finding the perfect name for your characters can be a daunting task.

Sometimes a good name comes right away. It sounds right and fits the character like a tailored suit. Other times, nothing we come up seems to connect. We may go through an entire carousel of names before we land on one that gets the job done. We don’t love it, but it gets the job done.

A great character name, like coming up with a perfect title for a story, is hard to find.

Names have incredible significance. We see this from the beginning, and by beginning, I mean, “in the beginning.”

In the first chapters of the Bible, God called the first man and woman by name. Soon after, He tasked Adam with coming up with names for the animals in creation. Later, God’s people, the children of Israel, were called by His name.

Names identify, give meaning, and establish or help define relationships.

Any storyteller who cares enough to give his character a name, imparts a bit of his own heart into that character. A named character reminds us as readers that we are reading about a person who exists in that world.

If you’ve read my piece on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, you’ll know that I commend the ways the writers made the genetically identical and often faceless clone troopers unique and sympathetic to the audience. Names, particularly nicknames, played a huge role in this. Where the clones’ “creators” identify them by number, the individual clones develop personality (and their own identity) through actual names and nicknames.

Some character names work because they sound right.

Merriadoc Brandybuck (The Lord of the Rings) is the kind of jovial, agrarian name we’d expect for a Hobbit of the Shire.

Severus Snape (Harry Potter) or August Gloop (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) tell us everything we need to know about their respective characters before we ever meet them.

Though we as writers may have a reason for giving a character a certain name, a good name should have an origin within the story. It will connect the reader to a specific family, culture, community, history, or geography in that world. Fantasy writers can be the masters of this, taking time to create their own phonology of names that also develop and define their respective worlds.

For example, a name like Jon Snow reveals a much different history and heritage than someone with a name like Daenerys Targaryen (A Song of Fire and Ice).

Skywalker is a name that links Luke to his father before that name was changed to Darth Vader when he turned to the dark side.

Han Solo, on the other hand, doesn’t have a people or family history. We learn in Solo: A Star Wars story that he truly is a rogue and is only given the name “Solo” by his Imperial recruiters.

In Louis Sachar’s Holes, we meet a character named Stanley Yelnats, who has a unique relationship with his name.

Of course, there is nothing unique about the name Stanley. However, the narrator tells us that all the men in his family are named Stanley Yelnats at birth.

Furthermore, we learn that those named with the name have been historically unlucky, even cursed.

So why would the Yelnats family continue to name their sons Stanley? It’s because, “everyone in his [Stanley’s] family had always liked the fact that ‘Stanley Yelnats’ was spelled the same frontward and backward.”

Just from the name and a bit of exposition, we get the sense that the Yelnats family is a bit odd.

On top of being socially awkward and the inheritor of bad luck, Stanley has a name that fits the kind of unlikely, goofy, yet loveable hero we’re going to follow.

Of course, not every character has or needs a memorable name.

Sometimes the author can take a nameless approach to either their protagonist or villain.

In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, we never learn the narrator’s real name. She’s simply called Mrs. DeWinter, taking on the name of her new husband. In this way, her individuality is overshadowed by her husband and the inescapable, looming presence of Maxime DeWinter’s past wife, Rebecca, the “mad woman in the attic.” That’s the point.

Monsters and villains often don’t get names either, and in some ways that makes them less sympathetic, less human, and even more mysterious or terrifying.

The shark (Jaws), the predator (Predator), the alien (Alien), and even unnamed man (Bambi) are terrifying enough without a name.

An unnamed character can further be used by the author to represent a larger archetype. This is what we find in Holes with The Warden.

By choosing not to give The Warden a specific name, Sachar allows The Warden represent a universal authoritarianism that most children, especially the heroes of this story, loathe and fear.

Certainly, the heroes of the Harry Potter series can relate.

In Harry Potter, those who fear Lord Voldemort refuse to call him by name, referring to him instead as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Those who wish to strip Voldemort of his power aren’t afraid to call him what he is. And those who really want to go on the offensive, namely Dumbledore, call Lord Voldemort by his birthname: Tom Riddle.

Characters may be referred to by multiple names.

In The Lord of the Rings, Aragon goes by the name Strider as a Ranger in the wild and Elessar amongst the Elves.

Similarly, the apostle Paul used his Hebrew name Saul amongst the Jews and Greek name Paul when ministering to the Gentiles.

Sometimes a character’s name will change over the course of the story.

In the Bible, God changed the names of Abram and Jacob to Abraham and Israel to reflect the new covenant nature of their relationship.

In the book of Ruth, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi asked to be called Mara (meaning bitter) after losing her husband and sons.

Hebrew exiles like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had their birth names changed to Babylonian names in an attempt to purge them of their Hebrew identity.

And of course, Anakin Skywalker’s had his name changed to Darth Vader, signaling his turn to the dark side.

And then there is the matter of nicknames.

Nicknames, in many ways, can be even more effective than actual names in that they reveal how other characters in the story perceive each other.

In A Song of Fire and Ice, Petyr Baelish is nicknamed Littlefinger as a boy for being small in stature and for coming from a tiny peninsula in a region known as The Fingers. Ironically, Littlefinger keeps the name well into his adult years as a reminder of how far he’s risen on the political totem pole of Westeros.

Littlefinger’s political rival, Varys, is called The Spider for being the master of whispers and keeper of secrets.

Nicknames can be given like badges of honor for heroic deeds or memorable acts.

In A Song of Fire and Ice, Prince Oberyn Martell is called The Red Viper of Dorne for his fighting style and use of poisons.

In The Hobbit, the dwarf prince Thorin becomes a legend amongst the dwarves after the famed battle of Azanulzibar, where he defeated the goblin ranks using nothing but an oaken branch for a shield. From then on, he is known as Thorin Oakenshield.

In David Ayer’s WW2 tank drama, Fury, the young Norman is given the nickname “Machine” after mowing down a foxhole of Nazi soldiers. The awarding of a nickname signifies that he now is now part of the group.

I’d like to add, thanks to a great observation made by my friend Sean Fallesen, that not all nicknames are affirming.

In fact, many nicknames are more derogatory in nature and intended to chide characters for attributes they’d perfect not be linked to.

Hector Zeroni in Holes is given the nickname Zero, “because there’s nothing inside his head.” In fact, many of the prison nicknames of Camp Green Lake are similarly disparaging (Barf Bag, X-Ray, Armpit, and Zig Zag).

In Game of Thrones, the dwarf Tyrion Lannister is referred to as “The Imp.” Likewise, bastards of Westeros are denied their father’s name, branded instead with a universally accepted bastard surname such as Snow, Sand, or Rivers, depending on their region of birth.

Similarly, characters like Bufford “Mad Dog” Tanen (Back to the Future: Part 3), Harvey “Two Face” Dent (The Dark Knight), and Jaime Lannister, the “Oathbreaker” and “Kingslayer”, have nicknames they despise because they expose the way they are seen by others.

Sometimes, nicknames can come from physical traits, hobbies, or personality quirks.

In A Song of Fire and Ice, both brothers of House Clegane are renowned for their size and ferocity. They are called The Mountain and The Hound respectively.

The name Needles is given to a character in Jason Reynold’s When I Was The Greatest for his proclivity for knitting.

Yeah Yeah from The Sandlot earns his name for always saying “yeah”.

Holes’ Clyde Livingston, the famous basketball player, is called Sweet Feet for his “sweet smelling” feet.

Ironically, in Holes, the residents of Camp Green Lake actually prefer their demeaning nicknames over their actual names, much to the chagrin of the adults in charge.

While they may be forced to dig holes all day, the use of nicknames becomes our heroes’ act of defiance and way of establishing a new community amongst themselves, one that cannot be controlled or defined by the authorities.

Names and nicknames can reveal what others see in a character but also expose how characters view themselves.

In James Gunn’s first Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill calls himself Star Lord, a name (we assume) exposes his inflated self-image. We learn later, however, that it has a much deeper history and connection to his mother.

In Holes, Stanley realizes that he’s finally become part of the group when he is given the nickname “Caveman.” The nickname itself isn’t as meaningful as what it represents: acceptance.

Once he is given a nickname, Stanley begins to see himself as more than just unlucky or cursed. He finally gains the confidence to take risks.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn rejects his crown and claim to the throne, choosing instead to live in exile as a ranger. In his own journey, however, Aragorn slowly begins to accept his call to leadership and rightful place as king of Gondor.

There is an enormous shift in the character when he finally allows himself to be called Aragorn, his kingly, Dunedain name, as opposed to Strider, his Ranger name.

Whenever a character’s name changes, this is often a sign from the author that something has changed in the character as well.

In Holes, Zero’s sheds his nickname and reverts back to being called Hector once he has finally left Camp Green Lake. Only after Hector is “free” and learned to see himself as more than just another zero in the system can he ditch his prison nickname and become Hector Zeroni for the first time.

Both names and nicknames, therefore, have meaning.

A good name will help define and develop a character as much as the events of the story. It can signify transformation or change. Names and nicknames can be given; both can be kept or abandoned.

In any case, the process of finding the right name for a character can be a daunting challenge. However, while this process may be filled with much research, frustration, trial, and error, finding good, meaningful, and memorable names for your characters is often worth the time it takes to get them right.


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