At the beginning of my worldbuilding, I thought it would be nice to bond nicknames for characters of either highlighted importance or supernatural power. This naturally appearing differentiation is a gloriously amazing way of character building in my view.

So I came up with a bunch of possible outcomes - here's all I have so far, in categories:

  • simple English words: Red, Woe, Hammer, Jelly

  • direct descriptions of abilities: Iron Fist, Jumper, Visioner, Immortal, Pinfinger, Siphon, Carrier

  • personalizations: Drifter, Amazon, Iron Maiden, Iron Fist, Hackerboy, Energizer, Paladin

  • animal names: Medusa

  • mythological names: Kebechet

  • words of non-English origin: Diablo

  • other means of differentiation: Boss, Second, Ladykiller, Reaper

All these categories are very limited and can easily get 'filled' to the point of additional namings would not make any sense.

The problem is that initially, I invented these nicknames for the law enforcement body of my world's dominant power, in order to keep track of all the potentially threatening individuals. The reasoning behind this is the nicknames are either naturally coming (Drifter, Kebechet) or are distinctive enough to be easy to apply. (Red - for hair color, Woe - for personality)

Even after some decrease in the size of my world, the local population is much too big to be suitable for such a simple naming system. You can easily imagine a random person claiming e.g. the nickname "Drifter", for him-/herself or his/her band, organization or even race.

This would lead to extreme confusion at some areas, especially if names can be 'reclaimed', for example, if the original Drifter is caught and/or killed.

How can I guarantee that such simple names can stay unique even when others attempt to steal them?

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    $\begingroup$ Roughly how many individuals are we talking about? I'm not very familiar with Pokemon, but a quick Google search told me that there are 761 of them, and as far as I can tell, they all have unique names. So at least it's feasible with a set that numbers maybe into the low thousands. Beyond that, any system is going to get unwieldy at best. Even with the first name + last name system used in most countries, duplicates abound. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2016 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ I would not enjoy a novel with 761 named characters to keep track of. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Sep 22, 2016 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ I can't even remember 10 names, I would be reading a fight scene and just go "wait a second, who the hell is this [name]?" $\endgroup$
    – Skye
    Sep 22, 2016 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ Are you looking to name all the criminals in the world you are building, or to find a way for the police forces to do that? Would they really give them nicknames rather than case id's? "We are dealing with #14533, whom the media are calling Blondie" $\endgroup$
    – Whinja
    Sep 22, 2016 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Whinja For the purposes of paperwork/electronic records, there'd presumably be a case ID. For the purposes of actually talking about a person, they're going to use a name - whether it's the suspect's actual name or a nickname. People just generally aren't good at remembering numbers, especially if they're working multiple cases. "Hey, suspect #14533 has been spotted. Let's go pick him up." is probably just going to end up with them responding with "Who?" $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2016 at 14:05

7 Answers 7


Combine nicknames to get millions of possible nicknames

The OP is correct that singular nicknames is problematic because there just aren't enough names to go around. A possible solution to this is to generate names like "LHJKNJOO" or "KJHJHUIUXZMC" to identify someone with the obvious trade-off that those names are basically unusable for identifying anyone. Yes, those names are technically unique but no human read will want to keep track of those names. They'll probably just close the book.

However, Baby-faced James isn't the same as Baby-faced Willy

If the author combines a set of adjectives along with a set of nicknames, the potential combinatoric name possibilities grows very quickly.

Say you have 100 adjectives and 100 nicknames. All possible combinations will be 10 000 different names. Even if you go with choosing just 2 names out of 100 possible names, that will give you 4950 different combinations. Choosing 3 of that 100 gives you 166167000.

The Black Drifters are very different than the White Drifters. Likewise, Rob Anybody Feegle is clearly not the same as Never Rob Feegle.

Better than Acronyms

While three letter acronyms can offer equivalently sized name spaces, they lack the story telling power of the adjective+nickname approach. Consider the simple 'HJB'. The author will need to spend some amount of time building up a meaning for who HJB is and why that sequence of letters should mean anything at all. But "Hard Joints Bobby" instantly brings to mind a stiff legged person.

In real life, nicknames are chosen as a shorthand description and identifier for people. Acronyms are almost never used this way.

Alternatively, make up your own words

Building names using sounds that appear in English but don't form actual English words would work too. For examples, look no further than your favorite brand-name pharmaceuticals. (Big-Pharma is actually very careful to choose brand names that don't mean anything to anyone in any language. You wouldn't want to choose a name that doesn't mean anything in British English but is a horrible slur in some dialect in Africa.)

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the best answer so far. $\endgroup$
    – Z..
    Sep 22, 2016 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ Rob Anybody Feegle is clearly not the same as Never Rob Feegle”—don’t be surprised when encountering people constantly confusing these two. And be prepared, to get into more problems when maxing out that to all 10,000 combinations. The quality of these nicknames is not better than, say, all possible three letter acronyms… $\endgroup$
    – Holger
    Sep 22, 2016 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ I mention simply the Feegle known as No'-As-Big-As-Medium-Jock-But-Bigger-Than-Wee-Jock-Jock $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Sep 22, 2016 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ As an additional descriptor, you can throw in geographic tags, related to either where the criminal is from, or where the first crime or crime spree was committed. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2021 at 14:40

You can't, but that doesn't matter

Consider the nickname "Red". It's a real nickname, which has been given to thousands of people, real and fictional, generally for having red hair. However, it doesn't really matter that multiple people have it, since generally these will be people that don't really know each other and don't operate in the same circles.

This generally works because people a nickname is only going to stick if the people around you want to call you that. If there's already a famous "Red", and you want to go by that nickname, nobody is going to care because "Red" already refers to someone else. They'll pick a different nickname for you, and you'll get to go by that name. This is true even if the nickname you go by is something that you picked with no knowledge of the other "Red", or if it was given to you in a different place of by a different group of people. Red will go on being Red, and the newcomer will get something like "Little Red," "Baby Red," or whatever else people want to call you. Over time, Baby Red might become a famous criminal in the area, in which case nobody else would go by or be referred to by the nickname "Baby Red". Everyone in his social circle knows who that is, so referring to someone else by that name would only cause confusion.

Nicknames ultimately aren't unique identifiers, they're what everyone in the area (or even just in one social circle) calls you. If you social circle decides your nickname is confusing, they'll give you a new one. This applies for law enforcement, as well. Within a department, they'll probably come up with unique names for criminals, but different departments or different precincts may use the same name for different people, unless that individual is significant enough to be on the radar of both organizations.

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    $\begingroup$ Even real names aren't unique in the real world. Imagine if 7 billion people were all restricted to having unique names globally. The vast majority of the population would have at least 7 letter names. Imagine trying to remember all of those at a party. $\endgroup$
    – phyrfox
    Sep 21, 2016 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ @grawity: except that there aren’t 7 billion Gmail users, not even remotely. However, I remember registration procedures on international websites requiring me to invent a unique user name, of course, without any knowledge about the existing, yielding hours of trial and error (if the website is important enough to keep on trying). Nowadays, I will not try anymore on such sites, rather, my password generator will run twice, to generate a user name and a password… $\endgroup$
    – Holger
    Sep 22, 2016 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ This will quickly lead to names like No-As-Big-As-Medium-Jock-But-Bigger-Than-Wee-Jock-Jock $\endgroup$
    – Jens
    Sep 22, 2016 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Jens The beauty of nicknames, though, is that people would quickly replace that with "In-Between Jock", and then "Tweeny", and while Tweeny might be pissed that he doesn't get to be called Jock anymore, nobody would confuse him with Wee Jock and Medium Jock either. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Sep 22, 2016 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @phyrfox Hi James287, Im John117, this is my son, Ben672 and my wife Fleur2. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Sep 22, 2016 at 16:27

Names are Contextual

So I mention James.

James who?

That's a great question. 'James' doesn't denote a person in-and-of-itself. It's like saying "the dog." What dog? Now imagine how mentioning "the dog" in a room with just the two of us, and a canine companion. 'Oh, that dog.'

So how about James?

Well if you visit the World Building chatroom, Factory Floor, there's a good chance you'll know the great member of our Community James. If I bring up 'James' there you'll have a reasonable guess what James I'm talking about.

So how does that apply to our criminals?

If I mention Hammer on the island of Vandrin, everyone will naturally think of the local criminal Hammer; after all Hammer robbed the Greater Will Bank and was responsible for at least twelve murders on the West Bank. To everyone who would care about Hammer knows which Hammer you're talking about when you mention his name.

If you can't stand for names to be contextual and have to have them unique... well welcome to the early days of the Internet! Dial back the time machine a decade or two and you'll come across the evolution of forums and chatrooms. There, names had to be unique, but people's creativity with usernames hadn't... evolved to where it was today. Instead they went for a simple basis like "LadyKiller" and "JamesBond" and "HotChick." Of course, many, many other people thought of the same things, so these names became "L4dyKi113r" and "xX-JamesBond007-Xx" and "HotChick1987" as people were forced to insert variety into their names. Quite simply, there's only so many unique names that people could come up with that sounded cool.

You'll run into the exact same issue, as you've seen.


Add the region/city of origin to their name

What is the easiest way to refer to two different people with the same name? Just use their place of origin - e.g. James from New York and James from Munich.

So just let every Police-Department add their local region/city name to the Name of the villain. Locally the Drifter can just be called the Drifter. But everywhere else on the world he will be called "London Drifter" and if a second Drifter appears somewhere else on the world that will be for example the Tokyo Drifter ;-)

A few thousand cities times a few thousand names should be enough to cover your world of supers.

Just like with normal names and family names, you can add the city part only, when clarification is needed. So as long as everyone only knows one Red Woo you can just call her Red Woo, but if you are not sure, you can ask "The Kentucky Red Woo?" - and they can specify "No, we are talking about the Hong Kong Red Woo"

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    $\begingroup$ Tokyo Red was a much desired name all in all 7 people were competing for the title. This led to a series of bloodier acts of wanton destruction as Kotoku Red, Ohshima Red and Komae Red all battled for the position in the misguided belief that the worst would be named Tokyo Red. In the end a pretty insignificant person got the name as the police ran out of more local names, by which time there was hundreds of applicants for the title. This totally unstabilised the metropolitan Tokyo and led to the Bloody Red massacre that took place between years 2530 and 2533. $\endgroup$
    – joojaa
    Sep 22, 2016 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ @joojaa it is even more beautiful than I imagined (^_^) $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Sep 22, 2016 at 12:54

You will get repeats, and that's okay. You can even play with the notion. Imagine a busy night at City Watch HQ:

Captain: Sarge, who'd we arrest today?

Sarge: Let's see... Big Ted, Little Ted. Jenny Psycho. Lefty. [Grins] And three guys named Lone Wolf.

Captain: [Sighs] You put all three in the same cell, didn't you?

Sarge: C'mon Cap, how could I not? I mean seriously.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the dialogue alone $\endgroup$
    – IT Alex
    Sep 12, 2018 at 15:34

Pretty much all things, including nicknames, have to have context. As long as they have a reason, people will keep them straight. But there's always a story behind them.

Broad These are based on place or function. Since names are contextual that can work for coming up with unique things. Examples are: Cabbie (for cab driver, and you can call any driver that), Outlander (for someone not from around here)

Based on Physical Attributes or particular skill Gangsters did this--things such as "Red" "Fat Lips Jones" "Freckles Malone." Literally anything "Knives" even.

Based on what the person did, that one time Many nicknames are not welcome. So you scream that one time because of a spider--and every after, you'll be called "Screamer" or "Spider" because you have arachnophobia.

  • $\begingroup$ "Knives" reminds me of a fantasy novel I read ages ago. Little town is bullied by a nasty guy whose name is "Avi Stetto" which in the local language means "I have a knife". He's always threatening people with it. Til a visiting viking-type guy comes to visit. Avi threatens him, "I have a knife!" Guy shrugs, says, "I have a gigantic broadsword, see?" ;D $\endgroup$
    – akaioi
    Sep 9, 2017 at 9:44

I'm going to address the problem of giving unique nicknames to lots of people while keeping those nicknames short, as it seems to happen on your world. Of course not all nicknamed people in the world are going to be individual characters in your novel, but the naming system needs to work even for the people not showing up in the novel.

If you don't care about readability and meaning, a nickname is just a string of letters (like XKCDXKCD). If you use the English alphabet, you can get 26 one-letter nicknames and multiply than number by 26 every time you add a letter. This way you can get more than ten million nicknames with just 5 letters and more than a short trillion (10^12) with 9 letters.

If you want something people can read an pronounce, the estimation gets a bit more difficult because there are different ways to arrange letters that can be pronounced. A rough estimate would use silabes formed by one consonant and a vowel (like in WOBUSE). In English, 105 of such silabes can be formed (21 consonants * 5 vowels = 105 silabes). This way, you can get over 1 million nicknames with 3 silabes (6 letters) and a short trillion with 6 silabes (12 letters).

If you want to use only meaningful English words, you will need very longer nicknames. According to this paper (as cited by this xkcd-what if post), English text contains about 1 and 1.2 bits of information per character. That means that to get one million different English texts you need about 20 characters, and to get a trillion different texts you need 40 characters.


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