Fears and Villains

I’ve been thinking of how to make my villains more villainous. Writing instruction books (well, the good ones) tell you to write about what scares you. So the question is… how to incorporate what scares me (or what scares a good deal of the general public) into my villains.

There are things that scare anyone: death, public speaking, natural disasters, failure, the loss of a loved one… and there are also scary things like spiders, horror movies, bears, roller coasters – more concrete and specific things.

I think the scariest thing a villain can do is put your life or the lives of your loved ones in danger. But it all has to do with the manner in which he does that. Some villains can torment you psychologically, others physically, and still others lurk behind the scenes and let their bumbling minions do the dirty work, which often leads to that villain’s destruction.

Nightmares are a good source of scary stuff, especially since they come straight from your subconscious mind and can reveal aspects of yourself that may be frightening to others. I still remember some of my worst nightmares and I often think about how I can possibly add those qualities to my villains.

Are one person’s fears too specific for others to relate to? Or are they too broad as to be almost a cliche? I think almost everyone has nightmares where the villain is a popular movie archetype or an amalgamate of a few.

But the most frightening ideas (or images) come from aspects of a character’s personality. What the character fears should be deep-rooted and should raise the stakes in the story. A character who was molested as a child might have a continual fear of men touching her (even if it’s just an innocent tap on the shoulder). Fear should come from the character to make it believable. You can’t have a Godzilla-like creature threatening a city unless the protagonist is a character who greatly fears giant lizards for whatever reason – otherwise the villain isn’t truly scary.

Another thought I’ve been having is that I don’t want my villain to be cartoonish or cliche. A cartoonish villain is one who is foiled too easily or who isn’t scary enough for either the audience or the protagonist. That villain manages to do stupid things that almost guarantee his loss in any battle. Some books and movies lend themselves well to cartoonish villains, but even a “cartoon” (and often very amusing) villain like Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit can be pretty damn scary. As with a lot of things about writing, it’s all in the balance.

Any thoughts on fear and villains in fiction?

7 thoughts on “Fears and Villains

  1. Well, one question that occurs to me is whether the antagonist exists in relation to a specific protagonist, or whether he or she is a more general villain (Sauron, for example). If the former, then you can pose the villain’s strengths against the hero’s weaknesses, as you describe. If the latter, than the villain has to be doing more generally villainous things that threaten (or actually affect) a lot of people.

    I think one of the most effective things is a villain who pretends to be a good guy, maybe a friend of the hero, maybe more similar to the hero than the hero wants to admit. I would recommend some movies like this, but I can’t figure out how to do it without it being a spoiler. 🙂

    The other thing is a villain who, even though thoroughly evil, still works for someone else (so, by extension, there is someone even scarier in the background). The classic TV show The Prisoner worked this way. Number 6 (the protag) was interrogated and even tortured by a series of people called Number Two, but being “Number Two” makes it clear that there’s a “Number One,” never seen. (My last post was a reference to The Prisoner, BTW — sort of an inside joke).

    The excellent movie Lone Star was the same. The (excellent) villain was a sherrif, but he was protected by the person behind him, a judge who really ran things.

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    1. It’s also cool when the protagonist is his own enemy. I also like the double-agent villain, who’s working for both the good guy and the bad guy. I’ve tried to do that in some of my stories and it’s a fun technique.

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  2. One way to make a villain more real is to give her positive attributes. Also maybe some of her motives are good, but she’s going about them in the wrong way (or, in the way the protagonist thinks is wrong). Kind of like Anthony said above, if the villain has similarities to the hero.

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    1. Giving a villain motivation will make her more realistic, too – and that motivation usually stems from things she feels are justified even though the protagonist might find them odious.

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  3. Wonderful post, Maggie. I like the idea of making the villain his own worst enemy ~ by attributing mal-intent to everyone else’s action.

    For example, an innocent bump in the grocery store causes the villain to “mow down” the transgressor with a shopping cart . . . or a car.

    Always escalating the accident into intentional misconduct and then retaliating with revenge that far exceeds the initial “crime.”

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    1. Good villains always tend to see the dark side of things – they’re those people who love to complain and always see some kind of ulterior motive in everyone’s actions.

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    2. Nancy, I have a character like that. She’s murdered people over burgers that weren’t rare enough, and coffee creamers that had gone bad.

      The only thing is, she isn’t a villain. Otherwise, she’s pretty much as you describe.

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