Villains are meant to be scary. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding them increasingly weak in popular culture. So here are 6 tactics to help you create scary villains.
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. If I’d watched it for the first time now, 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 bigger effect on me now—yes, I leave lights on, scan rooms and ceilings and ensure 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 or the villains in popular culture, 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 morals, motives and positive traits for your villains. These things still stand and are really key to creating a truly scary villain. A while back I asked you who your favorite 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 six things I’ve learned about creating really scary villains:
6 Terror Tactics For Really Scary Villains: 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 photo right. 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 it’s obscure enough you don’t quite know what it’s used for… What’s worse than 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 there’s not enough blood. It also tells you the machine is involved—and 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 reader’s 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).
Really Scary Villains: 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 value: 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 mean 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 i’ll 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 scarier. 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.
Really Scary Villains: 4 and 5 Transparency, Clarity, and Secrets
Saying transparency, clarity and secrets sounds like a contradiction. But it’s not. A villain needs to be transparent over their goals and be able to articulate them—verbally or otherwise—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. Villains need secrets. They need deadly, evil, twisted secrets. To keep the villain credible, the reader and/or the protagonist need to know the villain has secrets, but not what they are. And of course, these secrets need to foil the heroes plans.
Really Scary Villains: 6. Make them Unbeatable
Everyone 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 off, pull away all the resources they need. Make life look completely hopeless, and your villain will look even scarier.
If you liked this post, why not get even more awesome tips in the book 13 Steps To Evil – How to Craft Superbad Villains
Click this link and just click the logo of your device or regular bookshop and it will take you to the right page.
You can also get a FREE villains cheatsheet and a villain’s short course by joining my mailing list just click here.
Amazon Book Blurb:
Your hero is not the most important character in your book. Your villain is.
Are you fed up of drowning in two-dimensional villains? Frustrated with creating clichés? And failing to get your reader to root for your villain?
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If you like dark humor, learning through examples and want to create the best villains you can, then you’ll love Sacha Black’s guide to crafting superbad villains. Read 13 Steps to Evil today and start creating kick-ass villains.