I first watched the Exorcist when I was about 9, I don’t know whether it was the projectile green vomit or badly done makeup, but I wasn’t impressed. These days it might be a little different. I was skeptical about everything back then. These days I’m only skeptical about some things because I know there really are things that go bump in the night. Scary movies, books or stories, have a better effect. Leaving me switching lights on, scanning rooms and ceilings and ensuring there’s a hockey stick within reaching distance!
I’m my own worst enemy and can never please myself. I started this series because I wasn’t happy with my villain, guess what, I’m still not. So I started investigating what makes a really scary bad guy. This post aims to identify what sets apart your Lemony Snicket from your Michael Myers (Halloween).
I’ve already talked through 6 Simple Steps to Superbad Villains, and the 6 Most Sinister Villain Personalities, so obviously this post had to use the number 6 too…. 666…. see what I did there… ok moving on!
I’ve already talked about Morals, Motives and Positive Traits, these things still stand, and are really key to creating a truly scary villain. A while back I asked you who your favourite villains were and you listed loads, and some particularly scary ones too:
Lee Harvey Oswald, Vergil from DmC: Devil May Cry, Bellatrix LeStrange, Professor Umbridge, Annie Wilkes, Norman Bates from Psych, Cruella de Vil, Queen Jadis, the Witch from the Chronicles of Narnia, Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Child Snatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes, Nurse Ratched, Jack Torrance (The Shining).
But what is it that makes them really scary? Lots of the stories these characters come from were made into films, and I think there is something we can learn from that. Here are the 6 things I’ve learnt about creating really scary villains:
1. Setting, Setting, Setting
One thing I failed to consider when thinking about my villain was what else other than the character themselves contributed to making them super scary. Films have the ability to add music: the creaking of a door, the vibrato on a particularly high note as the character pushes open a door into a darkly lit corridor… oh wait a minute, we writers can do that shit too!
Take the above photo. It’s dark anyway. Put yourself in there and you’re immediately drawn to the rusted machinery that still looks like it works. It’s positioned just close enough to the light, you know it’s important, it can be used, but its obscure enough you don’t quite know what its used for… Thats worst; knowing something is awful, but not knowing why. If there was a small splatter of blood slowly dripping down the chair, and another spot on the machine it would just finish the setting off. It tells you the blood is fresh, that someone is wounded, but not dead because theres not enough blood. It also tells you the machine is involved – this room is a torture room.
I said ‘splatter’ on purpose because too much blood and you remove the anticipation, tension and mystery. Giving a hint of horror, a tiny clue to the atrocities that await you without slamming it in your face like a knife laid in a whopping pool of blood does so much more for building terror in readers (and your character).
What else can you do to your setting? Think about Pathetic Fallacy (a kind of personification of the weather/nature).
“Is it just me or did the room get real cold?” I said as goosebumps clawed their way up my arms and danced down my back. I drew my jacket in and shivered my breath forming wisps in front of me. As I walked further into the narrow tunnel, it grew darker, colder, more silent. Like the sound of life itself was being sucked into the walls.
2 and 3. Credibility & Believability
Credibility leads to believability. Credibility is the quality of being trusted and believed in. Having credible villains means we will believe in whatever scary ‘thing’ it is they are doing. But how do you create credibility?
Use core values – even though they are a villain they will still have core values – even if that means they are warped and evil. Sticking to core values also means you will be consistent which builds character. It also means your villain has a reason to fight – they will defend their values to the death just as much as your hero will – it just happens that they are opposing each other.
Integrity – although integrity is about doing the right things for the right reasons, if your villain has core values even if they seem illogical – and he fights for them – then he has integrity. A villain fighting with integrity and thinking they what they are doing is right, and for the right reasons is scary. Especially if what they are doing is horrific like a mass genocide or whatever. They will be able to give reasoned logical explanations for why they are doing what they are doing, and reason and logic means that occasionally you will believe what they are doing is right too!
Authenticity – Your villain needs to do exactly what they say they are going to do. Especially if that means torturing your main character or killing off a couple of major minor, or minor minor characters. Without following through on their convictions they become weak and flaky.
Expertise- having an intelligent villain with expertise in a particular area means they know more than you do – and especially more than your main character – this makes them unbeatable – but ill cover this later. It also means they can think of new cruel and unusual ways to defeat your protagonist.
There is one more aspect to this, believability can come from playing on fears. I always think some of the things that are the scariest, are those that are the closest to reality, the ones that could almost be true. Take Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – when the film was new and the child catcher first appeared, it was so close to reality – in that there are child kidnappers that it made it all the more scary. Using concepts that could be true, or things that are just plain wrong, like torturing or hurting children (amongst other topics) brings a frightening element to stories, especially if the Villain can make reasoned arguments as to why they are right.
4 and 5. Transparency, Clarity and Secrets
Saying Transparency, Clarity and Secrets sounds like contradictions. But it’s not. A villain needs to be transparent on their goals, and be able to articulate (whether verbally or otherwise) their goals with absolute clarity. There is nothing scarier than a villain who is absolutely crystal clear on the consequences of crossing them or, how they are going to exact their revenge on you. But this doesn’t have to just come from spoken words. It might be done through body language, or prior actions. Either way, you need to make your reader know the shit is about to hit the fan – even if you just allude to it. But villains need secrets. They need deadly, evil, twisted secrets. To keep the villain credible, the reader and/or the protagonist needs to know the villain has secrets, but obviously not know what they are. These secrets need to foil the heroes plans.
6. Make them Unbeatable
Every one loves an underdog. Sometimes your hero needs to be the underdog. Really scary villains appear completely unbeatable. They are too intelligent, too many steps ahead with more resources at their disposal than the protagonist. Cut all the heroes options, pull away all the resources they need. Make life look completely hopeless, and your villain will look even scarier.
If you liked this post, subscribe here to hear about the release of 13 Steps to Evil, my writing craft book designed to help writers craft superbad villains. Due for release MAY 2017.