We all know what a hero looks like. We also know what the Bogey Man looks like. But it is an art form to write a Bogey Man that jumps out from the pages of a story and truly scares you. Today I have asked one of my favourite writers to guest post on this topic. Drew is perfect for this topic because not only does he have real life experience in chasing down the bad guys but his antagonists are truly original characters who will definitely haunt you.
When Kim asked me to guest blog about scary antagonists I was well and truly in my element!
I’ve had to invent a number of ‘bad’ characters in my crime and children’s novels to date, and I have something of a formula for what I personally find scary and how as a writer I project that fear onto the reader.
Here are my tips:
1. Outward normality.
I don’t know whether it’s residue from my time in the police force, but I’ve generally stopped thinking about antagonists as hideously ugly and obviously frightening to behold. I think it’s infinitely more terrifying to take the real life psychopath/sociopath as a starting point for your antagonist – outwardly there’s nothing unusual about most of them (I’ve met a few in prisons and on the streets, and they look just like me and you), but if you’re able to peel back the mask of normality then there’s something truly scary underneath. Letting the reader in on the secret thoughts and actions of such beings is always good fun and practically guarantees a shudder or two.
2. An obsession.
Whether it’s the obsessive urge to murder and mutilate of the serial killer, (Dr Lecter step forward) or the erotomania (obsessive love) of a stalker (think Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’), a memorable antagonist should have something at the heart of their desires that preoccupies them and drives them to evil acts. That obsession could be for revenge, the desire to possess something or someone, or taking simple sadistic pleasure in the suffering of others; but it’s memorable because we recognise it as being at odds with what it means to be truly human.
Rightly or wrongly we tend to fear the seriously mentally ill; unpredictability and irrationality threaten our love of order and control, so a character who exhibits these behaviours is a frightening prospect for the reader. I studied psychology some time back, and there are a wealth of different personality traits and disorders that translate into useful fodder for the writer: Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, the archetypal ‘bunny boiler’, exhibits strong characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder, for example.
Finally, and here’s the most difficult part, you need to find something original (or nearly so, since there’s precious little left that hasn’t already been done) about your antagonists. That might not necessarily be the nature of the character’s actions themselves; it could be the setting, or something about their life or motivations that sets them apart (The character Dexter of book and TV fame is a good example), but unless you’re entirely happy with being considered derivative, you need to be able to point out what sets your bad guys apart.
I hope you find this interesting and/or useful, but I’d love to hear your thoughts too.