I once edited a book that utterly boggled my brain. It was based on a true story about a few families whose lives were interwoven for three generations. However, each person was called by several different names—depending on their age and who they were with in a scene: mom, dad, boss, coworker, friend, neighbor, spouse, etc. Let’s say one guy was named James Robert Slug. I read about James, Junior, Jim, Jimmy, Jim Bob, Slug, Slugger, the Big Slug, Director Slug, Boss. That’s ten names for one person! And every person in the story was called a different name depending on who they interacted with. I absolutely could not keep track of who was who, much less follow the story, even with extensive notes.
We all have many names and nicknames. In real life, it works. However, in books, your reader has to memorize (and visualize) each person you write, so it’s important for them to instantly recognize the characters as they appear.
My recommendation: have two names maximum for each person. One can be their public or professional name and the other what their family, close friends, and peers call them. (James and Slugger.) You can use the character’s full name the first time you introduce them—James Robert Slug—then use “James” and “Slugger” ever after.
Use affectionate nicknames in intimate scenes. Let his mom call him “Sweetie” and his dad call him “Son.” Let his siblings call him “Kid” or “Bro.” But even better—just describe how they interact so no additional names are needed:
His mother ran to James, tears flowing. “I never thought I’d see you again!” He awkwardly patted her back as she clung to him. Over her shoulder, he locked uncertain eyes with his father, advancing toward him like a furious bear. His younger brother dashed in front of their dad excitedly, cutting off the inevitable altercation.
In that scene, we know exactly who is who, even though the only name mentioned is “James.” That allows us to be fully engaged in the drama of the story.
Savvy Writer Tip:
Don’t use multiple names for your characters. Use two names max. When a character interacts with others, describe the relationships/emotions of the scene and leave out nicknames, pet names, formal names, etc. If your readers can instantly visualize each person clearly, they won’t get confused and bogged down. They’ll keep eagerly reading your story to see what happens next. Perfect! 🙂