Names are important. They might not give someone special powers, but a name that means something and provides a connection is a powerful thing indeed.
That’s in real life. What about names in fiction?
I don’t mean how creative one can be in giving a name to that mystical race of space-dwarf hybrids or what have you. I mean the meaning of character names, both protagonists and antagonists, and even just the sound of them.
What do I mean? Let’s look at a woefully overused cultural touchstone, Star Wars, because it provides an easy example of what I’m getting at. Look at the character Darth Vader. There is no way anyone with this name could be confused for a good guy. On the other hand, a guy like Han Solo’s name really tells us nothing about the character, save that he may be a little selfish. And Luke Skywalker is clearly a hero, because “sky” isn’t something we associate with evil.
And then there’s Emperor Palpatine. The name “Palpatine” just sounds gross. And good guys never have gross sounding names.
Another overused story, The Lord of the Rings, features a villain named Sauron. That’s slightly less on-the-nose than “Darth Vader,” but it still sounds sinister. Whereas a dude named Samwise is pretty much guaranteed to be on the side of the light.
That said, I do enjoy when villains have innocuous, or even pretty sounding names. This is the same way as villains who are very good looking, charismatic, and charming can often be more reflective of what evil is like than the big hulking death-warrior in huge spiky armor whose last name ends with “eth” or “kull” or something like that.
Good guys sometimes have, if not gross, then incongruous names. For example, in one of my favorite movies–and arguably the greatest pirate movie of all time–Captain Blood, the main character is named Peter Blood. That’s just a badass name that strikes fear into his enemies, and it makes you wonder what this guy’s deal is.
As you can see, sometimes characters are named something that just sounds good. It’s like music in that sense. There’s also another naming convention where the meaning of a character’s name reflects something about the character. In my opinion, this can get a little too contrived at times, but when done right it can be a fun and subtle way to add a little symbolism to your work. Astute readers of A Traitor to Dreams have told me they liked the character’s names when they found out what they meant . . . all of which was intentional.
You see more blatant naming in stuff geared for kids, of course. The villains always have really evil-sounding names. Since I’ve been playing old NES games with my son on the NES Classic, I have Mega Man on the mind. I still laugh at the fact that the series’s main bad guy, Dr. Wily, used to be friends with the good guy Dr. Light. The guy’s friggin’ last name is Wily, and he used to be trusted friends with the forces of good.
And then, in the third game, Dr. Wily somehow convinces the good guys that’s he’s reformed. Of course, he’s lying, but the good guys fall for it anyway.
That’s an extreme example, of course, but it goes to show that character names can create powerful impressions in a reader or viewer’s mind. Maybe they’re named after historical figures that they share characteristics with. Maybe their name foretells something that will happen to them. Or maybe the sound of the name is designed to create a specific impression. Whatever the case, fiction is full of memorable names that conjure images in the mind. When wielded deliberately, this can be a powerful tool indeed.
What are some of your favorite fictional character names?
Read what I’m talking about in this post and snag A Traitor to Dreams for yourself.