Friday, August 27, 2010

Nom de Bad Guy^

^Summer is for reruns, so…

Darth Vader, Voldemort, Saddam Hussein, Professor Moriarty, Hannibal Lechter. All bad guys. All with great "bad guy" names (and one isn't even fictional!). Without even reading/seeing their story, I’d guess they were bad dudes. Why is that?

I'm no linguistics professor, but I can detect a few underlying "clues." “Darth Vader” sounds like “Dark Invader.” Voldemort and Moriarty have "mort" or "mor" in their names, bringing death immediately to mind. “Hannibal” rhymes with “cannibal.” “Saddam” is close to “sadist.” All negative connotations. (And what about Voldemort and Vader both being called "Lords"? Not negative, but…interesting.)

People develop certain preconceptions about names. If you were terrorized by a bully named Chris Newsome in second grade (just sayin'), then you'd probably have negative feelings toward any other Chris Newsomes you encounter--in real life, or in fiction. (Too bad his name hadn’t been Darth Newsome. Then kids might have instinctively known to avoid him.)

Some of my favorite villain names come from Dean Koontz. I read an article by him (or maybe it was from his great, out-of-print book How To Write Best-Selling Fiction (1981)) where he talked about giving his antagonists "harsh-sounding" names, full of hard consonants (v's, d's, c's, and k's are popular), double letters, and difficult-to-pronounce consonant blends. Check out some of his baddies: Edglar Vess, Vladimir "Corky" Laputa, Bryan Drackman, Preston Maddoc, Vince Nesco, and Thomas Shaddack. Don't these names just ooze badness?

Of course, most of Koontz's books are horror stories and thrillers. Obvious bad guy names don't work as well in mysteries, where the reader isn't supposed to know who the bad guy is until the end. Still, they'd make good red herrings...

Sometimes I think it would be nice to write satire or cartoons or kid's books. Then you can be a little more literal with your villainous  names: Snidely Whiplash, Cruella De Vil, Boris Badenov, Bugs Meany cruella(from Encyclopedia Brown, one of my favs), Dr. No, and Dr. Evil. Those must be fun to make up.

A character's name can have a profound effect on how readers picture him or her. Try portraying a character named Mal Madoff as a philanthropist--it's not going to fly!

What are some of your favorite names of fictional villains?

Writers, how do you name your bad guys?


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10 comments:

Jan Morrison said...

Oh I just love naming my characters whether they are good or evil. I and two friends own a murder mystery entertainment company and we adore coming up with names for our suspects and villains - favourites of the past - Herb Pate, Ninette Beazley, Ruby and Pearl Pinkney.
In my wip I just had to name a tax collector (not evil I suppose but definitely in that category) She immediately got the name of Ms. Padwick. Why? I have no idea - perhaps it is the slightly Dickension feel. Twin whack-jobs in the same novel are called Clovis and Pike Sherman. They are minor wickedness.
I could go on but I'll leave some space for others. I get my names by listening. In CatchWord Productions, the mystery biz, we save names we hear or go looking in phone books or use map names...Jan Morrison

Margot Kinberg said...

Alan - Naming the villain is always interesting. I thought right away of Snidely Whiplash when I read your post : ). I usually give my bad guys unassuming, "normal" names. I write mysteries, so I don't want the name to give away who the killer is.

Mary said...

Names hit me when I hear them. They seem to cry evil, crooked, murder, etc.
Names affect me and I have to be careful not to prejudge because of that--characters and people.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Darth Maul was a wicked cool name for someone evil. I enjoy naming my characters, but guess I've never put much thought behind the aspects of a bad guy's name. Other than the alien race threatening the Cassans in my book - Vindicarns.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

The wonderful thing about some villains is that they're so evil you have to wonder how they've survived as long as they have. These are the villains that have the names that reek of evil and ill-doings. However, you will note, with most that they are names the villain adopted so that their evilness was reflected in their name. I can't imagine any mother looking down at her freshly-born name and saying, "Let's call him Darth".

Terry Odell said...

My bad guys must be wimps. Then again, I don't have real nasty villains in my books--they're not deep, dark, suspense thrillers. And maybe that's a good thing--since readers can't pick up on who my bad guys are just by their names.

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Alan Orloff said...

Jan - I am definitely stealing Herb Pate.

Margot - You could also give ALL your characters evil names.

Mary - I agree. I won't invite anyone named Hannibal over for dinner.

Alex - I'm naming my next villain Vince Vindicarn. Thanks.

Elspeth - Good point. Although I guess you never met Mrs. Vader.

Terry - Come to the Dark Side! Darth says hello.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Dracula is the evil name that popped in my head. I have fun naming characters though I haven’t had to come up with really evil names…yet.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I love evil names! Wish we could do more with them in mysteries. Maybe your idea of having a wicked name as a red herring would work...

Dorte H said...

But I can´t tell you, or you would know immediately who did it!

In my cozy mystery, I try to say something about the character´s personality through the name, though.