THE LITERARY MEERKAT: Howard Denson

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Finding Names for Your Characters©

Posted by Howard Denson on September 21, 2022 at 7:45 PM

By HOWARD DENSON

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Any writer of fiction wants to avoid invading anyone’s privacy or having irate readers feel attacked because a villain has a name just like theirs. They may want to file a suit alleging that they have been defamed or held up to public ridicule.

 

Fictional villains often have powerful names that stick in our imagination. Uncle Tom’s Cabin , for examples, gives us a splendid villain in Simon Legree, and that name has gotten into the vernacular whenever we wish to refer to someone as a sadistic abuser.

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Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers gave us another splendid villain in a vicar named Obadiah Slope, who was devious and unctuous (and played perfectly by Alan Rickman in one TV series). You can only wonder the degree to which the name Slope inspired J.K. Rowling to come up with the name of the potions wizard Severus Snape. William Faulkner could have been inspired by Trollope’s Slope when he came up with the name of Flem Snopes, but I suspect he took the name of the Scopes Monkey Trial, changed the spelling slightly, and added the first name “Flem” (suggesting phlegm that was as slippery as Snopes was).

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In comics, we have memorable names for villains, although we often don’t know the characters’ actual names without a little research. Chester Gould created “Dick Tracy” in 1931 and went on to give us such villains as Flattop Jones, Mumbles, Pruneface Boche, and others. These may be compared to the villains who bedeviled the Batman of Bob Kane and Bill Finger: Joker, the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Cat Woman, just for starters. The villain in “Superman” has a regular name that we recognize and remember: Lex Luthor. Captain Marvel a.k.a. Shazam had Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana.

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With the character names from Arthur Conan Doyle, I always thought that Sherlock Holmes was a fantastic name; that Dr. Watson was a pedestrian name suitable for his sidekick; and that Professor James Moriarty, who taught mathematics, didn’t quite seem up to the job of being a supervillain, perhaps because I never was able to envision my teachers of algebra, geometry, and trig as potential supervillains.

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In books by Edgar Rice Burroughs about the king of the jungle, I thought that Tarzan was a great name. It rolls off the tongue. Jane Porter, like Dr. Watson, had a so-so name, but I can’t recall the name of any of the human villains from the books or movies without doing some research.

 

In spy fiction, Ian Fleming (along with later screenwriters) gives us the deceptively bland name of James Bond and then villains with names like Dr. Julius No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Auric Goldfinger. For the names of women in Bond tales, I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s a sexual subtext: Honeychild Rider, Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole, Xenia Onatopp, or Holly Goodhead. I know, I know, I should get my mind out of the gutter. I’ll try.

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Over a decade ago, I wrote a column called “Gone with the Muggles,” about some lady’s attempt to zing J.K. Rowling for ripping off her work. I wrote, “Ms. Stouffer’s book had (get this now) only twenty-four pages, whereas each Harry Potter book ranges from 600 to 700 pages. Moreover, Stouffer’s opus was an activity book with games, puzzles, and pages to color. In other words, the Harry Potter book is to Stouffer’s pamphlet as Gone with the Wind is to the label on a box of Uncle Ben’s rice.” The lady’s central character was Larry Potter, and she had also used the term “muggles” (in a different sense from what Rowling had in the Potterverse).

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I went to the Oxford English Dictionary and found that the word “muggle” was used as early as 1205. The OED also had the word being used in 1450, 1607, and 1617. The OED refers to “Muggletonian” as a member of the sect founded about 1631 by Lodowicke Muggleton and John Reeve. (The lady lost her case if you are curious.)

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For myself, whenever I was writing something decades ago, I wanted to head off unnecessary challenges, so I would grab the phonebook from Jacksonville or Birmingham to make sure (in my provincial mind) that “no one” had a particular name.

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One way to avoid a lawsuit is to think up a totally oddball name. I came up moments ago with Shadrag Dingleofer and sent the name through a google search. It shocked me to find out that the U.K. had a long-running TV soap opera named Emmerdale. An actor named Andy Devine (no, not our comedic American often featured in Westerns) played a character named Shadrack Dingle.

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For practical purposes, it is nearly impossible for a writer to find a totally unique name for a character. Try it with your own name. I googled my full legal name and only got 628 million hits. If I shortened it a bit, google hit 2.2 trillion.

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In my ghost-comedy series about Martin B. Mowbray, I had zero hits with a Boolean search for my protagonist, but, when I dropped the quotation marks to limit the search, I wound up with 1.8 trillion hits. I had less dramatic results with my Scots-among-the-Indians character, Levi Philip McGregor, but with 223 million hits.

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For the major villain in my novel set in Florida, I googled with quote marks the name of Lysander Bryan Hunter. I got one hit: to my novel, Gettysburg Redress: Robots on the Run. I removed the quote marks and wound up with 227 million hits.

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When we create universes filled with characters who are heroes or villains, we want the readers to remember their names. Sometime, we come across a name that might rival Sherlock or Huckleberry Finn. We may find that we are following in the path of Stephen Vincent Benet, who said, “I have fallen in love with American names, the sharp, gaunt names that never get fat.”

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Unless the character’s already fat, as with Kasper Gutman, played by Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.

 

Categories: The Human Comedy or Tragedy

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