Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Holly Lisle's Vision

Horror

Getting the Best 
Out of Your Bad Guys

By Teresa Hopper

© 2002, Teresa Hopper

I have a confession to make: I love the bad guys in horror stories. There’s nothing I enjoy more than sinking my teeth into a novel with a really well written, scary bad guy in it. And they are often my favourite characters in my own stories, more so than my heroes.

I know that a lot of writers find this kind of character the most difficult to write, so here are my suggestions on how to get the best out of your bad guys.

The first kind of horror bad guy that I am going to discuss is the classic villain, who is sentient and premeditated in his evil: villains such as serial killers, demons, vampires, and so forth, as opposed to ghosts and monsters that usually cause trouble just by existing and behaving naturally.

One of the biggest mistakes that new writers make is thinking that the villains have to be entirely bad, with no redeeming qualities. I was certainly guilty of making this mistake when I started writing horror. I thought that if I gave them a good trait I was somehow watering down the evil, and they wouldn’t be as scary. Experience has taught me that the opposite is true – an all bad character is actually less scary because she is less realistic.  Real people have good and bad sides. Some of my favourite villains are ones that have well-rounded personalities – Hannibal Lecter loved art and architecture and had fantastic taste, Dracula was charming and clever. Your villain can have whatever good side you like – he might be kind to his mother (if he has one) or animals, or older people.

As well as having good and bad qualities, your villain should also have strengths and weaknesses for your hero to exploit and eventually use against him. Yes, that’s correct, your villain should have weaknesses, and they should become apparent during the course of the story. This way you will avoid the dreaded ‘straw villain’ problem, where your villain seems all-powerful but your hero manages to beat him at the end without any problems. Your villain should be hard to overcome, and it should cost the hero to do it. What should the weakness be? Well that’s up to you. One way is to use the villain’s good traits against him – in Hannibal, Clarice tracked down Hannibal Lecter through his love of expensive things. There are many different kinds of weaknesses that you can give your villain - his weakness might be someone that he loves, or he might have a power he can’t control or mental problems.

This probably goes without saying, but your villain should also be clever. I don’t necessarily mean that he has to have a genius IQ, he can be a street smart crime lord, but he can’t be stupid. I’ve wracked my brain, but I can’t think of a single instance where an effective, scary villain has been a moron. Plenty of ineffective ones…

Another good way to make your villain seem more realistic is to give his past as much consideration and planning as you do your hero. Why did he turn out bad? What is his justification for being the bad guy? Very few people think of themselves as ‘evil’; they find a way to justify their actions to themselves. If he is striving towards an outcome, maybe he feels that the end justifies the means. Or he might be a psychotic or a sociopath, as many serial killers are.

 

The second kind of horror bad guy is the monster, ghost, zombie, and so forth. They are not currently as popular as the villains, which I think is a shame because I love monsters, but all things come round, so I’m sure their time will come again.

Monster fiction needs to be approached from a completely different perspective than that of villains. I usually think of monsters in fiction as falling into two separate groups – there are the normal animals that have been changed in some way, and there are the supernatural or abnormal creatures.

A perfect example of the first group comes from the monster movies of the 60’s and 70’s, where regular animals like spiders got radiated, grew enormous, and started to attack humans. The spiders weren’t being evil, just doing what spiders do, but it is still great fodder for horror fiction. The horror here comes from the tables being turned – humans go from being the dominant predatory species to being the prey, and being hunted and fighting for your life gives the author ample opportunities for creating fear. Many horror writers over the years have played around with this concept – my favourite being the ‘Rats’ trilogy by James Herbert where mutant rats living in the London Underground system start to become aggressive and kill humans. This works on the ‘tables being turned’ level, but it is also given a head start because Herbert has picked an animal that most people have a strong dislike for anyway. These are the non-supernatural monsters.

The other group of monsters, the supernatural or abnormal creatures, contains a huge variety of horror bad guys  - from ghosts, shapechangers, and zombies to aliens. And this is the place where you can really let your imagination go wild; when you are creating a monster you have free reign – it can have razor sharp teeth or poisonous skin or be ten feet tall and carry off young women. A word of warning though: don’t get too carried away with your monsters, as it is easy to go over the top and move from scary to silly. For example, if you want to give your monster extra arms to make it harder to fight, a few extra arms is okay, but twenty extra arms is just going to look silly.

Similarly to the villains, you need to give your monsters weaknesses, or your hero is going to have a very difficult job to kill them. We all know the usual weaknesses  – kill the zombie master and the zombies die, work out why the ghost is angry and it’ll be put to rest, etc but don’t let these stop you thinking up new and original weaknesses for your monsters. A great example of this is in It by Stephen King; his monster is a shapechanger, and the weakness he gives it is that while it is pretending to be a creature it has all the weaknesses that the creature would really have. So when it pretends to be a werewolf it can be hurt with silver.

One of the big differences in writing about the two groups of monsters is when they appear in the stories. In the first group, the mutant creature is often seen early on in the story and appears regularly. This is because a lot of the horror here is visual (i.e. the horror of seeing or imagining a six foot spider eating a man), and the horror also comes from the change in the interaction between man and creature. With the second group, the opposite is true – the creature does not usually appear frequently until closer to the end of the story; the horror here comes from the build-up of tension from not seeing the monster. It also plays to the fact that things are always more scary in our imagination; by not showing us the monster, the author forces us to come up with all manner of terrible things that it could be.

My earlier tips for getting the best out of your bad guys are all relatively easy.This is the hard part, and the part the unnerves a lot of people. When you write your bad guy, it’s not enough to simply know why he does the bad things he does, what drove him to it; it’s not even enough to understand him. While you are writing him you must be him. You must delve into the darkest parts of your mind and find the bits of you that have the potential to be evil, and explore them. This is hard, very hard, because we spend a lot of our time trying not to look at these bits of ourselves, concentrating on the good. But it’s the only way to write bad guys that people will believe in. The first time you do this it can be very disturbing – to find that there’s a part of you that can write a torture scene or a grisly murder and really enjoy it. But don’t worry if you feel like that. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, or that you’re disturbed. Just grit your teeth and carry on and you’ll end up with something impressive.

My final suggestion is to analyse the work of other writers that you like. Pick one to two books with your favourite bad guys in, and then look for what makes that bad guy work for you. What are his strengths and weaknesses? Does he seem real to you? What does he do to make you scared of him? Hopefully this should show you how these suggestions work in practice.

Happy reading and writing.