Out of Your Bad Guys
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.