HorrorDrome is an ongoing discussion of the mechanics of writing scary Horror fiction. Here the Horror Story is split open top to bottom, bloody gears and tropes exposed for all to see. The goal: By picking apart the stories we love, we learn what makes them tick. I’m certainly no expert, but after writing for nearly twenty years, I feel I’ve got a few things to pass along to my fellow writers. The views expressed here are merely opinions, not facts. Lively discussion is encouraged.
Freddy Krueger Just Wanted To Be Loved: Creating Villains We Love To Hate.
Physics. It controls every part of our physical life. For every action, there is an opposite reaction. The hero in your story creates action, but only because it’s a reaction. He certainly doesn’t go looking for a villain. If Dr. Cutthroat didn’t kidnap Joe Hero’s girl because she has beautiful blonde hair, then Joe Hero would most likely wander through life with his girl, living happily ever after, and that’s not a story at all, or at least it’s not a Horror story. Once she’s kidnapped, Joe Hero has a goal, which is to get his girl back from Dr. Cutthroat at all costs.
Dr. Cutthroat has a goal as well. He wants to kidnap and hold captive all the women with beautiful blonde hair. He knows blonde hair has magic powers that, when properly channelled and controlled, will grant him power over all the people of the world. And Lord knows they need control. Crime at an all time high, people killing each other just because they can, the world is a cesspool of filth and despair, and only Dr. Cutthroat can help the people of world get back on track. They need him more than ever, and he’s coming, right after he kidnaps all the girls with beautiful blonde hair.
An elementary example, but nonetheless it shows us that your bad guy must have a goal. Now, before you start moaning about all the mindless, nonhuman, just want to kill and eat brains, monsters out there, I’m not talking about them. Yes, they have goals, but their goals are instinctual. You’re a monster and you need brains to survive, then you’re eating brains, end of discussion. Mindless monsters with instinctual goals are fun to write, but that’s a whole other blog.
What about villains like Dr. Cutthroat? As far as story physics goes, he is action, mass in motion, opposed only by his obstacle, Joe Hero, who is reaction, mass in motion, opposed to Dr. Cutthroat. And really, Cutthroat doesn’t care about Joe at all, he is nothing more than insignificant collateral damage. It’s only when Joe decides to get his girl back that Cutthroat even realizes he has an enemy. That’s right. Joe Hero is Dr. Cutthroat’s enemy.
But wait, isn’t Cutthroat Joe’s enemy?
When you experience a story, certain connections are made in your mind. One of these connections correlates directly to your mind’s need for symmetry. We seek balance. When the bad guy gets the upper-hand in a story, that balance is shifted, which creates suspense. Will Joe Hero defeat Dr. Cutthroat and get his beautiful blonde back? When the hero gets the upper-hand, the balance shifts again, releasing tension, yet apprehension is there, because you wonder if what he did was enough to stop the villain for good.
Action and reaction. Opposite yet asymmetrical, building tension and suspense. Just as Joe Hero has a goal, getting his girl back, Dr. Cutthroat has a goal, making the world a better place. Both are passionate about their goals. You may not agree with Dr. Cutthroat’s goal. You might think he is crazy as Hell and his grand scheme will never work, but that doesn’t matter. What will make Dr. Cutthroat a compelling character is the fact that HE believes in his goal. For him, kidnapping all the beautiful blondes in the world makes perfect sense. It’s the only way he can get the magic he needs to make the world a better place. He is just as passionate about his crazy-ass goal as Joe Hero is about getting his girl back. Dr. Cutthroat believes in this because he’s seen the evil that people do. He may have had a hard life with a poor family, barely getting by, happiness nothing more than the occasional birthday party and the warmth of a cuddly puppy, or he may have grown up with an affluent family, attending the best schools and making frat-buddies for life. These things shaped his outlook on the world, for better or worse, just like those same things shaped Joe Hero’s world. So Dr. Cutthroat believes his goal is right, and true, and just. There is no other way, he must gain that magic. The more he believes in his goal, the more believable he becomes to your readers. It is his passion, whether you believe he is right or wrong, that makes him a believable, compelling character. And yes, you’d better make him passionate about his goal or your reader is not going to care about him as a character. Don’t confuse caring about a character with liking a character.
There is a deeper action/reaction dynamic that writers must tap into so readers fall in love with our characters, heroes and villains alike. This is what I call The Empathy-Relate Factor. An example of this is Freddy Krueger. Freddy scares us with our nightmares so we already like him because, face it, we like being scared. Going a little deeper we find that Freddy’s goal is to kill the children of the families that burned him alive. Already the empathy factor is building. We start to care about him. We care about him because he wants revenge to right what he feels is a wrong. Trust me, you care about him. The feeling is instinctual, and purely psychological. You don’t like his goal, but you do care about him and how he plans to achieve his goal. If you didn’t care, there would be no story. You would never side with a child killer in real life, yet if you didn’t care about what Freddy was doing, and why he was doing it, he would be a boring character in a movie that never would have ever spawned a single sequel, or become a household name. Freddy’s goal becomes important for us because it continuously shifts the balance. Yet Freddy’s goal fulfills the Empathy-Relate Factor we seek in every story we experience. Every time one of the kid’s get closer to the truth about what happened to Freddy, he busts out his glove and slashes away at them. Freddy shifts the balance, creating suspense and tension. Since this is why we watched the film to begin with, we are rewarded. That reward is short-lived as the hero’s character physics takes over, tipping the scales again. Freddy is an action, the kids the reaction. This tug-o-war of conflicts makes the story. Without compelling characters, each with goals they care about, the story would never come off the ground.
Remember, every action has an opposite reaction. Your villain must have a goal, and he must be passionate about it. Attaining the goal means everything to your villain, and he believes that what he is doing is right above all else. Make your villain relatable to your reader, and build empathy, and then you’ve got a villain they love to hate, which is the stuff of legends. Write a villain with this in mind, and your readers will care about your villain, and your story. Who knows, they might even like your bad guy too.