Naming Your Characters

It’s time to break out the baby-names book! Because your protagonist needs a name, and any old name won’t due.

The go-to option is to name your characters after people you knew. Just remember to, later on, change it to something else! Your book may be published with a villain named Timmy Blankencheck, the kid who pushed you in the sandbox back in preschool.

Somewhere, Timothy B.  is on a flight for business, picks up a book he’s heard good things about, and is surprised to discover that he shares a name with a fictional penguin-murderer.

Don't feel bad. All Timmy's are evil

Don’t feel bad. All Timmy’s are evil

I know several people who have named their villains after a teacher or mentor who didn’t believe in them enough.

(By the way, if your instinct is to name your protagonist after yourself, you might consider reading my post about the Mary Sue).

Method number two for name selection is to name them after characteristics.  I like to call this method “Neil Stephenson-ing” because of his brilliant book Snow Crash, in which the main character is Hiro Protagonist. It’s a little strange, but it’s a strange book.

This can also be called “George Lucas-ing.” Seriously, his villains have the dumbest names: “Darth Vader” “Darth Sidious” “Darth Venamis” “Darth Tyranus” “Darth Maul” and “Darth Plagueis”.

Let’s play a game: guess which one of those villain names I made up. Wrong. They’re all real.

This calls to mind one of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000: Space Mutiny. Throughout the movie, Mike and the Robots call out new ideas for the muscle-clad meat-head protagonist.

“Plank Manchest!”

“Splint Chesthair!”

“Dirk Hardpec!”

The slightly-more subtle, but still cliche’d method is name your character Cane, Kayne, Kain, or Kanye. This just telegraphs that the character is a villain.

Similarly, be careful with any name that tells us how dedicated your character is. Detectives or Private Investigators named Hunter or Archer or Spade or Skywalker or Arrow or Captain America.

Full disclosure: my first book starred a homicide detective named Archer.

Damn it, FX!

Damn it, FX!

You will eventually have to change the name of one of your characters because you subconsciously named someone after your favorite ninja turtle (this was, tragically, discovered too late for the DiCaprio family).

Anyway, just remember, there’s something wrong with every character name you choose. And nobody use Principle Illustrion. That’s what I’m calling the lead character of my legal thriller.

Villains done right (and wrong)

Villains are the best. I spend so much time thinking about them, writing them, wanting to be them, etc.

Recently, the Fantastic Four movie has tried to re-re-reintroduce one of my favorite villains, Dr. Doom. And screwed it up again, but that’s not important.

Writers and agents tend to agree that the important part of creating a good villain is thinking through the character and fleshing them out as their own character. If your antagonist just kills aimlessly, you might not have needed a villain. You might have just needed a disease.

Further, you can sympathize with the best villains. Or even root for them. Take Dr. Doom:

Plus, Mr. Fantastic is a tool.

Plus, Mr. Fantastic is a tool.

I’d argue that his primary characteristic is his genius. Sure, he has that iconic armor. And in the comics he’s kind of a wizard. But when it comes down to it, he actually is pretty much smarter than everyone else.

He has his own country, Latveria. It’s a technological utopia, where the people are well provided for and generally happy. Sure, it’s run by a tyrant. But he’s really good at it.

In one comic, Doom claims to have used his science/magic to look into thousands of possible futures. In all of them, humanity has been destroyed – or just likely – has destroyed itself. Except the one future where he takes over the planet.

For another brilliant take on The Tyrant Who’s Always Right, read any of Terry Pratchet’s books that include the side character Lord Vetinari. Or the badguy from The Watchmen.

My other favorite villain is Mr. Freeze from batman. Specifically, I’m referring to the version in which his wife was killed/frozen. Now he steals diamonds necessary to forward his experiments to preserve her or bring her back to life. Yes, he steals and even kills in his burglaries, but to him, it’s all worth it to bring her back. Nothing is more important.

Unlike most doctors, he doesn't correct you when you call him

Unlike most doctors, he doesn’t correct you when you call him “Mr.”

In this version, he doesn’t kill for the fun of it. His motivations are clear. And in a way, you can root for him. Other villains to check out that have REASON: Magneto, the god-emperor of the Mistborn books.

This is why it’s so disappointing to see a villain whose soul characteristic is to be a dumbass or jerk. The villain who is simply there to be an obstacle for the hero.

So your villain doesn’t have to win. Just make me WISH they did.