There is one plot device that has become popular of late that I’ve always hated. I’ve hated it since J.R.R. Tolkien did it, and it’s never made a lick of sense to me. Even when the author takes time to qualify the use of this plot device, it’s still bogus and contrived.
The plot device I speak of is the main villain whose name cannot be spoken aloud. Truly a pathetic plot device that really only seems to serve padding out a novel by replacing a one word name with a big 4-5 word monstrosity of a substitution. It’s become very popular with the Harry Potter books, but it is by no means new. Fantasy writers have been using it for decades to make their primary antagonists seem more mysterious and powerful. The problem is, at best, it makes them seem silly. And rather short sighted at that.
Let me unpack WHY it’s such a terrible plot device. It assumes that said uber villain is impressively stupid or limited in ways he isn’t otherwise portrayed. If you go around saying “master of the underworld” or “nameless one” instead of “The Keeper” or “Hank” you aren’t fooling anyone. Everyone on your side knows you’re talking about Hank, so why wouldn’t super powerful HANK! be able to see through this puerile ruse too? Really, there is no reason he wouldn’t see through it if he’s so powerful and scary as he’s written to be. So why does such a simple substitution work? Because it’s convenient for it to work.
And, if said uber villain could only listen to one name, why not listen for the name that’s being subbed in? People who say your real name are most likely not conspiring against you, since those who WOULD be conspiring against you are going to be more careful than that… especially given your widely publicized ability to hear your own name. It’s the people who’ve adopted a pseudonym for you that you need to worry about. So, you listen for the pseudonym and suddenly you have access to all the information your opponents are trying to hide from you.
And if it HAS to be YOUR name… change it. Start calling yourself “Evil-bad-guy-whose-name-we-don’t-say” or “you-know-who”, and BAM, you’ve got access to all the mean things the goodies are saying about you. And if the spell/power requires you to pick a name when you start using it, then you really should have been sneakier than letting everyone know you have said power. Spread rumors that you have a huge spy network of impeccably trained pretenders. You sow suspicion and paranoia among your enemies and keep your power secret. Win-win. Better yet, actually have a few actual spy networks and be vague about where the information is coming from. That’ll keep people guessing as to how many spy networks you actually have, and sow more uncertainty. And anyone, even those on your own side, who figures it out should be immediately killed before they have a chance to tell anyone about it.
Of course, if you are an evil entity worth your salt, your spell/power will be more broad. You will be able to hear anyone who’s referencing you, no matter what words they use. So even if they’re being all tricky and using a pseudonym, you’re still going to hear the conversation. Even if somebody says “HE” with meaningful inflection you’re going to hear it. The purpose behind the words is important, not any specific ties to the actual sound waves being uttered. But that’s problematic for the unprepared fiction writer, as a main boss who knows all the protagonists moves is a more difficult foe to write and outsmart (I’ve seen it done, it just requires more skillful writing).
And really, if the good guys have such an obvious way to circumvent such a power, why even write that power into the story? Well, other than to use as a convenient plot point much later. And trust me, everyone will see it coming. Really, it’s lazy writing when it comes right down to it. It’s far more subtle to just pick a good evil name and use that than it is to go by a silly multi-word pseudonym all the time.
But, even worse, if you HAD this limited power and everyone knew about it, it would be worthless. You could never trust that people weren’t just feeding you fake information by using your power against you, or setting up a trap for your minions when they come to find the person who said your name. Really, if I even suspected I could be tracked/heard by saying a name, and could trust my nemesis to be stupid enough to take action based on said utterance, I’d systematically destroy him with ambushes and/or bad information. But, of course a good villain would know that his opponent might do this.. and that his power was ultimately useless.
I’ve seen this plot device in oh, oh so many works of fiction; even in books I like. But every time I see it I cringe. There are just far more subtle and thought provoking plot devices that can be used to make your “evil-bads” seem mysterious, powerful, and informed. Or better yet, maybe try to come up with one nobody has really done before.
-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?