I’ve taken several writing classes and one of the things I learned is so true.
And that is, sometimes your story is only as good as the villain (or antagonist in writer’s jargon). In horror stories this seems twice as true. Many a good story has collapsed because the villain, monster, or evil house or creature was feeble and scary as a wet napkin.
And when that happens, the audience and reader feels cheated because they invested so much time into the story.
What makes a good villain? In horror, they should be scary, yes. But he, she or it should also have more than one dimension. They need charisma. They need character. A hint of humanity or melancholy. Villains can also be mirror reflections of the good guys, the protagonists, of course in a bad way. That is, they are everything the good guy is not. In my book “The Weeping Woman” villain Mercedes shares traits with the protagonist, detective Blue Rodriguez. Both had bad childhoods, have paranormal powers, and most importantly, they want to be loved, although their reactions to that need is what separates good from evil.
The devil is always a good villain, but we don’t just want to a red guy with horns and tail. We expect that.
In “Constantine,” I loved the Satan character played by the wonderful Peter Stormare. He was a weird creature in a white suit, which enters, feet first dripping with a black goo as if he stepped right through perdition. He’s funny, evil, and creepy.
A brilliant portrayal of a bad guy was the Red Dragon in the book by Thomas Harris. A madman, yes. A killer, definitely. But interesting because he was an abused boy who turned into a monster. Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) in “Silence of the Lambs” also was killer with a hint of sadness. And the king of them all, Hannibal Lector, who was erudite, witty, charming, and a cannibal.
For half of “Psycho,” we felt sympathy for Norman Bates. Annie Wilkes in “Misery” loved Liberace as well as to torture her houseguest. And Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” talked with seriousness about the brilliance of Huey Lewis and the News and got enraged over people with better business cards.
So we’re talking depth. Villains with depth give our stories more depth, life and dimension.
When writing our antagonist, we should also form an in-depth character sketch—similar to what went into forming the hero. Even a haunted house should have a background. Take Shirley Jackson’s, “The Haunting of Hill House.” This place becomes a full character. Even the fog in “The Fog” has a backstory.
Of course, there will be those who are evil just because they aren’t any other way. Take the alien in the movie of the same name. What made it so damn great was its perfection at being evil and malevolence. And as always, the main story is really about how our protagonists act in the face of such a villain or evil.
So make sure you craft good villains, otherwise they could kill your story as well as the good guys.
For really bad horror pics check out: