The Importance of Being Inigo

What’s in a name?  Everything.
One of my favorite books and movies of all time, The Princess Bride,has a wonderful line spoken several times by its supporting character, the fiery Spaniard on a quest for vengeance (deftly portrayed by Mandy Patinkin):

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Sound familiar? Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you’ve likely heard the quote; it’s butchered by every drunken fraternity brother who thinks he’s the life of the party.  
But…Inigo? Where did that come from? Did the writer simply spin his Wheel of Names, choose an “I” and solve the puzzle?  
I think not.
If you’ve read the book, you know that the character is driven by an obsession to avenge his father’s murder, sacrificing his whole life to track down the elusive Six-fingered Man who killed his Papá and now needs to die. So how does the name feed the characterization?  
Let’s examine it, shall we?

First, speak the name aloud:  Inigo Montoya. It slides off the tongue with ease – that’s a plus and most times, a must. You don’t want the names to be too difficult to pronounce. Now put your suave and spicy accent on and say the whole phrase. Catchy, isn’t it? And definitive. He’s quick, matter-of-fact, and to the point.  

Second, dissect each part of the whole name. We know they’re Spanish simply from their spellings and sounds, but let’s examine them even further.

Inigo, of Basque origin, means “ardent,” and stems from the Latin root, ignis, or fire, as in ignite. It’s Spanish for Ignatius. With a first name meaning fiery and ardent, the foundation of a passionate Latino personality is laid.

His surname, Montoya (mountain), also originating in the Basque region of Spain, was derived from the acreage that the various proprietors owned in the villages. Therefore, we can conclude that the Family Montoya were nobles who came from the hills or uplands of Northern Spain.

A noble, ardent, fiery, Basque landowner:  Inigo Montoya comes to life. He has character. He has definition. Origin. Location. Ethnicity. Temperament. He has an identity. The author immediately gives us all that with only his name. 
Can you begin to see how integral names are to the successful characterization of your story? I cannot stress this enough. They conjure images of people, places, and things, creating definite visuals for your reader – but it’s a delicate task that can be overdone if too absurd or pointed a choice. Proceed with caution when wielding this double-edged sword. A great name can do wonders for a character; an awful choice can ruin a story.

With all the added definition a name can give your character, don’t you agree that it’s worth the few extra minutes of thought and research? The practice of creating great names is not only necessary for novels and longer fiction, but especially when there are parameters that limit your story to such a small word count that you have to make every word count. In other words, the short ones, too. All of them.

A few weeks ago in one of my writing circles, a colleague was intrigued by the name choice for one of my characters, asking if I chose it after so-n-so because that’s who he pictured. I didn’t, but the name was stereotypical of the kind of woman he envisioned, which is why I chose it. It brought up an image, ethnicity, location, and age all in oneword…a fitting first name.
My mind drifts to those wonderful concoctions in Harry Potter, utter literary treats, which show that even the most nonsensical tags effectively create a feel for the character…

  • Xenophilius Lovegood, meaning “lover of the foreign or strange,” is the odd bohemian father of Luna, a girl as spaced-out as the moon;
  • Rita Skeeter, the blood-sucking reporter buzzing around and pestering Harry, always ready to take a nasty bite;
  • Bellatrix Lestrange, a maliciously loopy sadist described in the novels as “a witch with prodigious skill and no conscience;”
  • Nymphadora Tonks, just because I love the name;
  • Alastor “Mad-eye” Moody, reminiscent of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn with the strapped-on optic prosthesis;
  • Sirius Black, who fittingly has the ability to change into a dog;
  • The Malfoys, meaning “bad faith;” Lucius, from the Latin, “light,” with a possible reference to Lucifer, and Draco, Harry’s nemesis, meaning dragon.  It’s only natural they follow the Dark Lord.

You can bet J.K. Rowling put some thought into those and all the other oddities at Hogwarts that needed proper description and nomenclature. And they’re so much fun, both to create and discover!  

Giving your character a fitting name can give your character a powerful identity, and if you’ve ever noticed, obtaining the knowledge of that identity – ever sacred – always gives the holder power. When Harry found out that Lord Voldemort was Tom Riddle, it was a turning point in his journey. 

What’s in a name? Everything. Next time you’re about to give your darlings a handle, scrutinize them – I mean, really put them under the microscope and consider who they are…then stop. Take a minute. Think about it. Instead of indiscriminately reaching into the Sorting Hat and choosing a John or a Jane, why not take a cue from Melville? Ishmael is a classic.



In case you’re confused in the comment section about the name “Chris,” that was my original nom de plume for the blog – which I wrote this and earlier posts under.


2 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Inigo

  1. Chris,This is a really fantastic post. I love how you demonstrated the importance of character name selection by giving us several excellent examples. I always labor over name choice and quite frequently the names of my characters change by the time I've completed a story.Side note: It's funny that I read this post today, I just came from a writing workshop where author, Madeline Hunter, used Inigo Montoya's famous line as an example of external conflict at its finest.

  2. Roxanne,Thanks for stopping by. Loved your blog – you're a busy woman! Yes, good names…a must. I labor on them as well, referring to several sources for authenticity. Many times I write in different time periods and explore cultures where names are vital to setting scene, period, and diversity. As a matter of fact, I plan to set my NaNo story in the 1800's.The Princess Bride: instant classic chock full of tasty nuggets. I plan on referring to it many times over.Thanks again for stopping. :o)


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