Monday, May 25, 2009

A Villain By Any Other Name . . .

by Julia Buckley
The Monarch and his love interest, Dr. Girlfriend.

Many people have written about the great literary and screen villains--the ones we truly love to hate, the ones who make us afraid to be alone in the house, the ones who are even a bit humorous while they do their evil thing.

But I was thinking today that all the greatest villains have truly wonderful villain names. In mystery literature, there is the great nemesis of Sherlock Holmes: Dr. Moriarty. It was genius of Conan-Doyle to give his villain a title--something to suggest intelligence behind the evil. Moriarty, of course, was the one villain that Holmes never really bested--they went down together (until Holmes mysteriously rose again).

There are other classic literary villains--the great Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper (who exists in true crime and in many fictional examinations), Madame Defarge, Mrs. Danvers, Raskolnikov, Hannibal Lechter. And what about the deliciously creepy-sounding Count Dracula?

And then there are the Hollywood villains--like Dirty Harry's serial killer, Scorpio, or Batman's many evil enemies: the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin, Bane. Spiderman has a slew of enemies, as well, including The Green Goblin, Mysterio, Dr. Octopus, Electro, Sandman, Craven the Hunter. And of course Superman's villain had the ultra-cool name of Lex Luthor.

Naming a villain would be difficult work, but enjoyable, I think. I've only written one truly villainous character (Nob Stevens), but I can see how those who write villains could be caught up in the fun of creating their evil personas.

My husband and sons have discovered a new favorite from Adult Swim on The Cartoon Network. It's a show called The Venture Brothers, which is a campy take-off on Johnny Quest (remember him?) and lots of Marvel comics characters and other cartoon cliches. The writers of the show, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer (not their real names, I'm guessing), seem to have had lots of fun in creating their stable full of enemies, who fight Rusty Venture and his two sons, Hank and Dean.

The Monarch (a man dressed as a butterfly), Phantom Limb (who is just a floating torso), Sergeant Hatred (whose power is mainly anger), Truckules (pronounced like Hercules, who is part truck), the Manotaur (part man, part bull) and Dr. Septipus (who has an extra set of arms) are just a few of the crazy villains that populate the world of this funny cartoon.

If you watch The Venture Brothers, you'll see that naming villains can be fun and funny, and so can writing their dialogue.

Who's your favorite villain from literature or screen?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think Voldemort was a good one. Perfect name.

Thanks for the interesting post. I hadn't thought much about the topic, but having a great villainous name really does make a difference.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Julia Buckley said...

How could I have left out Voldemort? A true classic.

Lonnie Cruse said...

How about Frankenstein (did I spell that right?) Associated with monsters throughout the last couple of centuries, BUT he was really a sad character, as was the Wolf Man. Nobody, but nobody cries like Lon Chaney Jr. Sniff.

Great post, Julia!

Alan Orloff said...


Bad guys are often more "fun" than good guys, arent' they?

Especially naming them.

I think I like (like?) Hannibal Lechter best. He was truly evil, despite Harris's attempt in HANNIBAL to "rehabilitate" him.

I recently had a few thoughts on villainous names myself:

Julia Buckley said...

You're right, Lonnie--and look how incredibly famous that name has become.

Alan, how weird! Great minds think alike, I guess. And I see I misspelled Lechter. I'll fix that.

Susan D said...

But...which came first, the Evilness or the Name? I mean, would Moriarty sound as nefarious if he wasn't already a known felon steeped in villainy for more than a century?

However, Elizath is right about Voldemort. Could be nothing but the deepest dyed villain. (Can we imagine a line like, "Dear old Uncle Voldemort arrived, a genial smile on his lips, and the children cheered as they ran to hug him.)

Ditto Darth Vader.

Susan D said...

sorry.... Elizabeth. It looked ok when I typed it.

Sandra Parshall said...

But isn't it also fun to give a deep-down-evil villain a plain vanilla name that will make readers dismiss him? Who would suspect a Jim Smith or a Bill Jones?

The naming of characters -- any characters -- is a fascinating thing. If you come up with the name first, then develop the character, you're likely to realize the name doesn't fit and you'll have to change it. Some names simply won't stick. And we also have to think about whether a name would have been popular the year the character was born. You can draw unintended attention to a character by using an anachronistic name -- naming a toddler Gertrude, for example, would probably stop a lot of readers cold, whether that's your intention or not.

Julia Buckley said...

Ah--good points Susan and Sandra. But of course Voldemort chose his OWN name, and that's why it's so evil-sounding. Tom Riddle sounds downright silly.

And Sandra, it's true that the name is ultra important, and yet I tend to name my characters very quickly and spontaneously. (I tend to do everything that way). :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Too funny Susan--Uncle Voldemort! I'm with Julia: any self-respecting evil mastermind would jettison "Tom Riddle" ASAP.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Julia Buckley said...

And all this talk of Tom Riddle has gotten me excited about the movie coming out this summer! :)