Since childhood, I have had a fascination with Horror. Yes, I was a weird and not entirely pleasant kid. I also loved Fantasy and Fairy Tales. However, what always drew me to Horror was the genre’s penchant for high stakes, intense characterization and, of course, terrifying antagonistic forces. Yeah, the villains. The monsters. The ghosts, ghouls and malignant entities.
This element of blood-curdling fear is exactly what I often found lacking in other genres, especially my beloved Fantasy. The closest I ever came to encountering these monstrous antagonist were dark echoes in the fairy and folk tales I devoured. Evil stepmothers, wicked witches, ravenous wolves. They were brutal, animalistic, and utterly dangerous.
This brings me back to Fantasy. Many villains in this genre are dutifully evil and reasonably scary, granted, but are they truly terrifying? Do they leave you unsettles? Afraid to turn off the lights? Admittedly, not as often as I would like. The genre, along with many others, has a penchant for mustache-twirling yet ultimately incompetent villainy. Bad guys who not only lack depth, but common sense. When they are in a scene, there is no sense of creeping, inevitable dread or gut-clenching revulsion. They are simply there, being “Muahaha!” evil, probably manic, and in the end, not much else. Thankfully, this sort of villain is falling out of favor, but I still see them pop up fairly often.
This brings me to an experiment I made while writing my first series of YA Fantasy novels, The Myriad Chronicles. I wanted to create more than just a monologuing villain who the hero defeats with relative ease. So, I turned to Horror for inspiration–a genre where the antagonist is often just as much a ‘star’ as the protagonist. The villains of Horror are frightening because they need to be in order for that genre to function.
I wanted my silly YA story to have some of that gritty menace and suspense. So, borrowing bits and pieces of Horror’s tropes and melding them with the surreal monsters of folk and fairy tale tradition, I built myself a breed of fantasy antagonist that I don’t often see: competent, brutal, and clever.
An army of beautiful, shape-shifting cannibal witches; an ageless race of soul-eaters; an ancient, man-eating mermaid goddess. Those are just a few. Though not allies in the story, these creatures all have one thing in common: they get shit done.
That is what I feel makes a good, solid, and honestly scary antagonist. Competent and savage enough to strike without a monologue; capable of orchestrating plans that actually work; dangerous enough to case harm; powerful, dynamic, and utterly convinced that they are the heroes of their own stories.
They are frightening because they might actually win.
So there it is. I have been asked a few times by readers how and why my monsters and villains ended up the way they are (they also ask me why I am so intent on giving them nightmares, *evil grin*), and this is the answer: I stole from the cliches of another genre, stirred in all of my favorite things, and made something that isn’t exactly new, but, I hope, different enough to be interesting.
In conclusion, villains can be as complex, compelling and vivid as any character, but if they do not strike fear into a reader, something is missing. Just as heroes need their courage, monsters need their teeth.