So you want to name your villain characters and you're stumped: what's the perfect name? You've thought of Bradford Brumley, Flipworth Pillington, and Ted Danson, but they've all left you cold. They're not sinister enough. Then you thought of Sinister Sucksack, but realized it's way too obvious. Well, there are a lot of possible approaches that the great novelists have used throughout the ages and I'll be glad to outline 'em for you. Let's have a look-see.
One key to coming up with a villainous name is to use your readership's preconceptions. We live in a democratic world. Aristocrats are naturally viewed with suspicion. Bradford Brumley might not strike fear in the heart, but Count Bradford of Brumley is a little more threatening. Okay, a 'Bradford' is never going to get much of a rise. That's beside the point. The villainous Count Fosco of The Woman in White wouldn't have been quite as menacing had he been Squire Fosco or Mr. Fosco the Swineherd. The fact that aristocrats are mysterious, threatening in their privileged social status, makes aristocratic names instantly suspect.
An aristocratic name needn't even include a title like 'Count.' 'Montgomery Burns' of The Simpsons is a great villain's name. So is 'Maximillian', the villain of Tiny Toons. Why? Because these names have just a few too many syllables. That both characters are ridiculously wealthy confirms the suspicions that they are Nouveau Riche aristocrats.
Sad, but true: we fear strangers. It's something Mom inculcated in you ever since creepy Mr. Timkins offered you some of his unwrapped Werther's Originals. Mr. Bradford Brumley is just too close to home to be a good villain name. But if we just tweak that a little. Bradu Brumah. Sounds like an evil witchdoctor to me! One might have thought the B sounds made Bradford sounds too sweet. That may be true. But a little xenophobia overrides that sweetness quite effectively. And indeed, there's a long tradition of xenophobic naming in the history of literature and cinema. I've already mentioned Count Fosco, the Italian villain of a British novel. Then there's Ming the Merciless, the galactic tyrant of the Flash Gordon serials. Why would Ming be Asian? Well, because it's more intimidating than Marty the Merciless. 'Marty the Merciless' is what you call a particularly aggressive accountant. There's a guy who can crunch numbers. But Ming's a guy who can crunch whole populations with his deathray.
Dickens had a wholly unique naming convention that's been very influential. He used imagery, words, or parts of words to form names that conveyed the personality type. Sometimes you wouldn't have to know anything about the character to know, "Oh yeah, that guy's evil alright." Like, 'Mr. Murdstone.' It's a combination of 'Murder' and 'Stone': this is not gonna be a guy who knits scarves for puppies. Or Uriah Heep, who, however nice he initially seems, can't be good--he just can't be! Nothing called 'Uriah Heep' can be good, unless it's a metal band. 'Uriah' is somewhat xenophobicm, 'Heep' is that Dickensian pictorialism at work. The influence of Dickensian naming can be found in the Harry Potter novels, with names like 'Severus Snape' and 'Draco Malfoy.' It can even be seen in cartoons like Captain Planet, where all the villains are named with a pollution theme, 'Dr. Blight,' 'Hoggish Greedly,' 'Verminous Scum,' 'Lootin Plunder,' and so on.
4. Theme Names
A very obvious approach is to simply give your villain a theme name, such as "The Joker." Finding a good theme name is easier said than done. It could seem like you're trying too hard: "The Entombinator". Forgive me, but there's just way too much going on there. Or it could be a little too fey: "The Mullion." That's back into Bradford Brumely territory, I'm afraid. Or it could be too void of drama: "The Apothecary." I'm sorry, but is this a Norman Rockwell painting you're composing? Because unless you're going for a slice of small town life in the '20s, y'don't want The Apothecary anywhere near your story or novel. In fact, unless you're naming a supervillain who's going to have adopted a theme to his villainy--and I've always wondered why they do that, frankly--or a serial killer who's been named by the press (e.g. The Boston Strangler), it's probably better to avoid titles altogether.
Of course, your villain doesn't have to have a Villain's Name at all. In real life, bad people don't necessarily have villain's names. Adolf isn't really a threatening name, but there aren't many kids being named Adolf anymore--it's become a villain's name. So it could well be Bradford Brumley the Apothecary. Maybe he's the unassuming small town man who lives with his mom and drugs local women to get them pregnant. (That's some Southern Gothic for you, there.) Hence Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, an ordinary name.
Some Great Villain Names
Melmoth the Wanderer
Cruella de Vil
6. Extra Tips and Tricks
Sound Effects: Certain letters convey a more sinister vibe than others. Lots of 's' gives a serpentine flavour. And an 'x' is rarely good. In between is a 'k'. Lex Luther, Severus Snape, Shere Khan. Of course, this isn't guaranteed. "Sissy Snackwell" or "Pixie Pressbum" just aren't going to do the trick.
Alliteration: I've been using lots of alliteration throughout this article. For one, I find it funny. But also, it does help. It doesn't help Bradford Brumley, but it does help Lex Luther. It just wouldn't have been the same had he been called Lex Sutherland.
Epithets: This goes back to Homer. If you want someone to be evil, just say so in an epithet. Bradford Brumley the Destroyer is threatening by the sheer nature of the epithet "the Destroyer." Of course, it does seem a little mock-epic. "the Destroyer" would do a lot better on a name like 'Sixgun Shirker.' Or 'Sinful Sammy the Bastard.' But choose carefully. Ming the Merciless is good. Ming the Incontinent is not.
Ultimately, if your villain is a great character, the name will be an afterthought. However, a well-chosen name can do a lot of the work of characterization. Besides, if your villain is named well, s/he'll be much more fun to write. Good luck!