So, dare I mention Hannibal Lecter? What is it about such a name that already raises the hairs at the nape of your neck?
What antagonists do you remember the most? Were their names original to you? What was it about them that makes them memorable? Were there grey areas to their character that made them memorable, believable and even admirable and how did their names convey such a thing to you?
How do you find a name that makes your reader both fear and yet uncomfortably understand the antagonist of your story?
Here’s a hint: it might be one-syllable or a many-syllable one, but it should never be one-dimensional.
How do you go about this very important naming of names?
Over the past few weeks I’ve been revising a big book fantasy and in the process, I established a marker name for my antagonist: a name I will not disclose as it was simply a name to mark the place. Often names come to me before the character’s story, but this guy is old and his name is not his own but the one his legend has given him.
In late April I went on a road trip to the FutureScapes workshop in Utah, where I had the first few pages of my manuscript work shopped by some of the best minds in the business. A wonderful New York Times bestselling author mentioned in her critique that my antagonist’s name sounded like something that might belong to a cartoon villain. Ouch, was my initial thought, but my critiquing author was right. even as a marker the wrong name had to go.
(Gargamel, pictured left, is the primary antagonist in Hanna-Barbera’s Smurfs franchise. He is an evil wizard who – with his mangy sidekick, Azrael the cat – is constantly trying to capture the Smurfs.)
I didn’t want a comic antagonist. My antagonist is a complex being–no Gargamel.
My antagonist battles soul-devouring demons. He steals bodies to keep himself alive, sort of like a ghoul. But he was a good dude once and somewhere deep inside of him there’s a terrible struggle. He does horrible things for what he believes is a good purpose.
He loves so deeply he is willing to do just about anything to reclaim that love and also the innocent delight it once inspired in him. In short, he has a goal and it isn’t revenge. Oh and there are demons and dragons involved in this plan, did I mention that?
I already knew that to write a good antagonist he can’t be just a really evil dude. They have to have redeeming characteristics. S what about that name? Something that inspires a kind of cultural fear, yet sounds kind of awesome as well? You could so have gone to school with a guy called Hannibal, right? After all the historical Carthaginian commander Hannibal caught the Romans off guard by crossing the Alps on an elephant. Awesome, right?
And Lecter? That sounds like something you could stand right up to and give a speech.
Come to think of it it also sounds like a corpse. See ‘lich’, which is Old English for ‘corpse’.
Hannibal Lecter is just the perfect name in both sound and person.
What resulted for me was a very long and interesting search on the internet for words that typified a number of emotions. Words for terror. Words for ghost, demon, soul-thief, revenant. This search went into many cultures, most of them of indigenous flavour, since there is an indigenous context to this fantasy.
I needed a name that sends shivers and that grew up around around my antagonist’s legend. I already had the name he was born with: the ‘Tom Riddle’ backstory to the ‘Voldemort’, so to speak, but I needed his ‘mark.’ The sound that ‘makes’ him believable.
Could you trust a guy named ‘Tom Riddle’? well, maybe.., but could you trust a guy named Voldemort? (If you answered ‘yes’ to this I’m not sure I want you on my side…)
I needed a name that spoke to my antagonist’s skin-walking nature without using that word.
I say again this fruitful search was motivated by valuable critique and also by pointed and caring support from my writing community.
I wanted to be strong in my choice but I needed feedback. I was willing to listen to constructive critique and act if suggestions triggered my ‘gut’.
I found first readers who were writers themselves but also first readers who read a lot but don’t write. I found critiquers of an inciteful nature and readers of a professional inclination like that fabulous NYT bestselling author who wasn’t afraid to tell me my basic villain name sounded comic, not scary. I had then to decide what I wanted my readers to believe about my villain. Did I I want my reader to believe my antagonist steals bodies? Oh yes.
I returned to my search.
I decided I wanted a name with an ancient intonation. One with close to world-wide shiver factor.
I searched a lot and ran names past friends on facebook and in my many searches for words on the internet I search came across an interesting thing. The word ‘revenant’ exists in the same form in most cultures and therefore curdles the blood with its connotation pretty much equally in most cultures. It does not stem from a single culture but most of them.
I went back to facebook and asked my wall if given a recent movie of the same name would it matter if I have the people of my world calling this guy ‘the revenant?’ What I got back was ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’
Hmmm. Too vague for satisfaction. Feeling I was on the right track though, I looked farther and discovered that one slight variation of ‘Revenant’ occurs in Haitian Creole.
I rolled it around on my tongue and my mind. Now yes, all of a sudden a name that felt right. Not his true name but what the world calls him in fear of what he does. Rvnan. Such a word could exist in a parallel world to ours and not seem to be stealing from a specific indigenous culture. Something that sounded like the buzz of a ritual rattle filled with bones. A name with an almost soothing hum like a hive of dangerous bees. Somebody who could lull you to sleep like a friend and then kill you for your skin.
Know your characters, what their weaknesses are and also their strengths. I call Rvnan my tragic villain because I know the road that brought him to steal bodies and it was both a powerful one and a lonely one. He has no one, and he thinks that’s what he wants.
Rvnan is the mirror of my protagonist. Where my protagonist is young and unskilled, Rvnan is ancient and strong. Where Rvnan has lost his heart and his empathy, my protagonist will give up everything to save a friend. Rvnan is easily capable of succeeding and I hope unpredictable enough that it should not be clear how this book will end.
All the time I wrote this I wasn’t sure, so I think I might have been doing something right. I had an outline like a road map but I never knew from minute to minute if my young protagonist would survive. Remember I said Rvnan steals bodies? Now hold that thought.
Oh, and if anybody has an extra book title hanging around, let me know. That needs changing too.