If you didn’t grow up reading the Harry Potter books, you probably find the name (Lord) Voldemort to be less ominous and more laughable. It kind of is. It’s also the brain-child of a deranged teenager with ego issues, but that’s an in-universe explanation and this post is about how authors best choose names for their characters which induce dread, rather than why characters give themselves names which are dreadful.
A well chosen villain name can be the difference between the reader shivering every time they are mentioned and a reader coming up with cutesy pet names (like Voldie, Moldyshorts, and many others) …which generally means they aren’t taking your villain all that seriously. Personally, I was always more invested in what would happen when the prose – or characters – of Rowling’s books described the Big Bad as Riddle or Tom, because if nothing else his berserk button would be triggered and shit would get real. (The fact that he was a more effective villain – in carrying out plans – when he was still a somewhat saner child/teen also helped with that, but the point stands.)
So, what do you have to consider if you want to save your villain from being laughed out of the room the moment they introduce themselves? Well, that can be genre dependent. I might do a part two later about realistic genre villains (you know, people who should have normal human names for their culture), but for now this is geared to the various forms of Speculative Fiction, because that’s where most of this nonsense happens. But within that sphere, the best way to save your villain from being a laughingstock is to answer five simple questions.
1) What Does It Mean?
Between Lovecraft’s penchant for the unpronounceable and Tolkien’s fondness for invented language and names, there has been a long trend in speculative fiction genres of simply smashing a bunch of random letters or sounds together and calling it a suitably intimidating villain name. After all, if Cthulhu and Sauron sound terrifying, surely the heroic Eldric’s same-species nemesis Xecodontalzivrek is too, right?
What most rip-offs of Tolkien don’t realise is that his names actually had meanings. They weren’t made up mishmashes. Tolkien created complete languages for his world and every name had a meaning. So names like Sauron (“the Abhorred”, real name: Mairon “the admirable”) and Morgoth (“dark dread” or “black enemy”, real name Melkor “mighty one”) make sense. They have meaning in that world and they fit alongside names like Feänor (“spirit of fire”), Manwë (“Blessed One”), and Curumo (“Cunning”, also called Saruman). Those names sound like they belong together because linguistically they do. And readers will notice if the big bad has a name that not only sounds like it doesn’t belong in that culture but also doesn’t belong in that universe. That being said: most authors aren’t writing complete languages and do not have the time or energy to develop root words and variants and grammar rules. Nor do most readers count such things in when they are emotionally affected by a story. Which means that even though Tolkien’s characters’ names made sense, there was nothing truly dread inducing about them. Likewise, “Voldemort” is made of root words which, together, roughly mean “Flight of/from death” but the name itself sounds like nonsense.
Then there’s Lovecraft. There’s nothing wrong with making an unpronounceable mess of a name if the creature who plays the big bad is a Lovecraftian eldritch abomination – something which would not be obliged to have a comprehensible name because it is not comprehensible to humans. But there is a VERY big difference between naming an eldritch abomination Cthulhu and naming a human or similar species character Cthulhu. If the name supposedly came from a being whose species uses a language humans or human-like species can understand, the names have to follow from that: have to be sounds those species not only could but would make. And, again, no one is scared of Cthulhu for being named Cthulhu. If we didn’t have pop-culture to warn us that he’s an eldritch abomination, we would not be automatically disturbed by the name (bemused and curious if the author suffered a coughing fit while typing, but not disturbed).
And here’s the funny thing, the name doesn’t have to mean anything inherently scary itself. It just has to mean something. Take two classic villain/monster names, which is scarier? Voldemort? Or It? It is scarier, not only because your reader isn’t distracted trying to pronounce it. A creature or person merely known as “It” is disturbing because it implicitly tells the reader that no one is quite sure what It is and humans don’t like things that they can’t define.
If you want a name to be ominous it needs to be an omen of something. Think about it, if you had to choose on name alone and could only flee one, would you flee the one called Asenath or the one called Soulcatcher?
2) How Did They Get That Name?
“From this day forth, I shall be known as LORD VOLDEMORT!”
“…Tom, you’re drunk, go home.”
The failure of the above to happen is quite possibly the least realistic thing in the entire Potterverse.
Unless you’re dealing with a second-generation evil, the big bad’s parents probably did not hold their newborn babe in their arms and think “aww, so cute, this one’s going to grow up to be a genocidal maniac, we need a name that says that”. Sure, you might have a world where everyone has a meaningful name, but in that case you can’t use an overtly evil name – else your back at the “why the heck did their parents call them that?!?” problem. It would have to be something which could, and would, also have less ominous meanings and could be equally likely to be found on a hero, else it wouldn’t be a name in that culture. (Note: some cultures have commonly used names with unpleasant meanings, but in those cases the names are chosen to confuse and ward off evil spirits and the names are as every day and usual as Anne and John are in the Anglosphere, meaning that they don’t actually count as ominous or even unusual.) People name dogs Ripper and ships Dreadnought, but they don’t name their children that.
So when it comes to birth names, the long and the short of it is: villains should still have names you could believably find on regular people.
Now, for the fun bit: epithets, pseudonyms, sobriquets, and nicknames. This is the fun stuff. It’s also the stuff where a lot of people go painfully overboard *cough*Lord-Voldemort-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-You-Know-Who*cough*.
Epithets can accompany or replace a name, but have entered into common usage – like a nickname which has become as common, if not more common, than the real name – which a Sobriquet has all but replaced the original name, and a Pseudonym is a disguise. But all of these beg the question: how did they get that name? Generally, if they just started calling themselves something wild other people aren’t going to start doing that and even if they can bully their minions into doing it, they aren’t going to be a very competent player if they spend all their energy trying to make people call them something specific.
If you want your villains to sound intimidating epithets and sobriquets which occurred naturally are probably the best way to go – that means that other people started calling them that and it took off. Like how the monster in IT is just called It. Why? Because no one knows what It is. Likewise, someone called The Impaler probably didn’t start out calling themselves that. They just impaled a lot of people and people came to associate that with them.
Now, you can get away with just using a sobriquet for a villainous character – provided you aren’t giving their detailed backstory or telling an origin story. It also helps to have a social norm relating to this. In real history kings often got epithets so that they could be recognised because the same family names were often used. In fantasy an excellent example of both sobriquet use and social norms is Glen Cook’s Black Company series. In that world true names have power, so wizards adopt pseudonyms which they come to be known by, while most members of the Black Company itself are given a nickname when they join and never after bother with their real names. That being said, the top tier bad guys in that series tend to have names which are more sobriquet than pseudonym – The Limper probably did not call himself that, but he was the one who limps (and Cook thus managed to associate his name with terror when members of the company hear the sound of someone walking with a limp). Likewise Soulcatcher and The Lady have real names and may – although we are never told if it is so – have started out with different pseudonyms, but they came to be known by those sobriquets because The Lady was the evil overlord’s wife (his Lady, the only Lady who needed no introduction) and Soulcatcher …catches souls. By the time the reader meets them these names are long established, but they probably came from frightened enemies trying to identify which of the major villains they were talking about. “Which of the Ten Who Were Taken?” “The limper”, fast forward a few years and that’s “The Limper” as a name.
3) Why So Complicated?
The most common pratfall in naming villains is that authors tend to pile epithets and sobriquets, etc, on top of each other (Voldy again) instead of picking one really good one. What they don’t realise is that epithets and sobriquets are there to make people distinctive, not impressive. If you’re one of many King Peters and you happen to be very short, well guess what you’re going down in history as?
And if you’re thinking, “Well wait a second, if those terms are used to identify that one thing about a person which is most recognisable how is that scary?” You might want to reconsider what about your villain is so uniquely terrifying. Because that’s the point. Vlad the Impaler did a lot of other things in his life, but he’s remembered for impaling people. Lots of people. Soulcatcher is a cunning, manipulative, out of control, utterly mad, super-powerful, nigh-unkillable sorceress. What is Soulcatcher known for? Catching souls. Which becomes creepier when you realise that all the different voices Soulcatcher talks with are those captured souls (and some of them are children). The Joker is a killer and a lunatic, but he’s known for the form in which his kills come (jokes, as he views them). Slapping a dozen or so extra names onto a character (Fanged Deathstar The Magnificient Dark Lord of The Land Of Evil) takes away from the punch and the terror. They aren’t known for one specific stand out screamer, they have a whole list and so are less impressive. Why? Because if no one thing haunts people’s memories, which leads to the epithet or sorbriquet, then none of those things could have left much of an impression. None of them were scary enough to become what they were known for. Less, in this case, is very much more.
4) Why Is It ALWAYS Dark Lord?
Speaking of superfluous terms. Dark Lord (or Dark One, etc) is not just overused, it’s meaningless. Dark Lord – and, for that matter, The/Other/s – worked when Tolkien used it. The only person who is Tolkien was Tolkien. Yes, humans naturally fear the night – and the dark – because we are diurnal. We also are naturally terrified of spiders and disease, but we don’t automatically name our villains Web Lord or The Rot. Using Dark Lord is inherently problematic for a lot of reasons beyond how cliché the Dark Vs Light motif is. For one thing, Lord is a title belonging to a hierarchical system based in feudalism. Is Dark a place? Does this lord have administrative duties? If you’re dealing with a setting where such hierarchical systems are not part of the society (whether they are mere remnants or never existed) or where they are part of the society and in fact are very important, your villain can’t just go around calling themselves lord of something – in one case it is a meaningless addition that doesn’t even impress people around them (and wouldn’t mean enough to them for them to add it) and in the other it has a strictly defined meaning which their more decorative use would make into a point of ridicule (“he’s not a real lord”).
So what about Dark? Well what do you mean by Dark anyway? Please tell me it’s not their skin colour. Is there some metaphysical divide between good and evil that happens to have chosen to define itself by how much light things emit? If there is some knowable inherent difference between good and evil in your world, you’d better have an explanation for how any sane person would choose evil – and don’t just say “they’re mad”. Real mad people are more often victims of cruelty than themselves cruel and the insanity defence is “not guilty on grounds of insanity” specifically because being mad in that sense means being unable to understand what you are doing and why it is wrong.
…Dark Lord. Cliché term for “Wannabe noble who can’t afford a candle”.
5) What Else Can It Mean?
The thing about words is that sometimes they not only mean what you think they mean, they also mean something else. Something you really didn’t mean, but which people will notice. For example, there is only one reason fans of Tolkien remember the orc Shagrat.