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?