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How to create creepy characters

As we head into both http://www.nanowrimo.org and Halloween, it seems the perfect time to talk about strategies for portraying creepy, spooky, and just plain unsettling characters. Whether for villainous or red-herring purposes, a good creepy character can really liven a story up.

There are probably countless ways to make a character give your readers the willies, but here are five of my favorite techniques. Mix-and-match to your heart’s delight!

Rulebreakers

Every society has a complex set of rules which set the limits of normally-accepted behavior. These social norms indicate everything from how close we stand when talking to people, to how much eye contact we make, how firmly (and how long) we hold a handshake. The list is almost endless.

People who violate these social norms tend to come across as creepy. We’re uncomfortable when the close talker insists on standing six inches from our face, where we can feel every puff of warm breath and fleck of spittle as he talks. We get nervous and don’t know where to look when the starer locks eyes on us and never blinks. We don’t quite know what to say when the walnut-crusher grabs our hand too firmly and then won’t let go.

We interpret them as being either unaware of or unconcerned with how they are making us feel, and they tend to creep us right out.

Gentle dictators

The defining characteristic of a gentle dictator is that he—they’re always guys, or at least, I’ve never met a female one—is most at home when bossing people around in ways that subtly undermine other people’s autonomy, all backed up by the implicit threat of violence. These are people who you just know were cut out for a career in cult leadership. They never threaten violence outright. Oh no, that would break the veneer of respectability they carefully cultivate. But just the same, they are not subtle in demonstrating their temper and just how close you are to crossing them and feeling their wrath if you should happen to step over the line. These are spiders in the center of their insidious web, whose nature doesn’t become clear until you’re already within fragging distance, leaving you no comfortable escape route.

Mind gamers

The defining characteristic here is intentionally creating ambiguity in how others are to interpret their behavior. They love to leave you thinking, was that an innocent compliment or an outright pass? These are people who are exquisitely aware of where the boundaries of social norms are, and delight in pushing their behavior as close to that line as possible. People who send mixed batches of signals, some clearly over the line, balanced by others just as clearly on the acceptable side of the line. These are people who feel power in other people’s discomfort and uncertainty. Who get a thrill out of seeing how much they can get away with. Other people are a game to them, or perhaps an experiment, and if you ask me that’s plenty enough to creep their victims out.

Conspicuous loners

These are people whose defining characteristic is the willful creation of mystery regarding who they are, what they’re up to, what they’re into, and so forth. It’s the person who explicitly arranges for as little information about themselves as possible to leak out into the world. This is the neighbor whose curtains are always closed. Who never comes and goes in the daytime. Who drives a panel van with jet black windows. Or at work, it’s the guy who has been with the company forever, but never talks to anyone. The one whose cubicle is absolutely bare of personal effects. Whose desk never has a stray scrap of paper on it. Who nobody’s really sure what he does or who his boss even is. The conspicuous loner is creepy by virtue of never letting you know anything about him.

Oscar winners

With apologies to actual Oscar award winners, this category of creepy are those whose public face hides a very different private face underneath. They’re the people who do all the right things in public. When other people are around, they know exactly how to play the game. How to mix and mingle. How to conduct affable chit-chat. How to listen to your stories and make you feel like they really care about you. How to seem like the salt of the earth. Until, that is, they get you in private. When the mask comes off, and you discover the hard way that they’re a mind gamer, a gentle dictator, or worse. And there’s nothing you can say to anyone, because they’ll never believe you. The whole rest of the world has swallowed the Oscar winner’s public face, hook, line, and sinker. The Oscar winner is the ninja of the creeper world, the stealth creep who doesn’t creep you out until it’s too late.

The roots of creepiness

The common element to all these creeper types is that they are rooted in unpredictability. Rulebreakers can’t seem to follow society’s little rules, so how can you trust them to follow the big ones? How can you rely on their future behavior? Gentle dictators leave their followers uncertain as to when and if they’re going to snap and lash out. Unpredictability is the whole point, for the mind-gamer; if you can’t figure out what they really mean by everything they do, how can you ever predict how they might react to anything? The loners are unpredictable due to the carefully curated void of information about them. Who knows what a loner might be up to, behind those closed curtains? And the Oscar winners, well, they let you predict all happy-nice behavior from what they show you in public, only to prove your predictions disastrously wrong once in private.

So if you want to create a creepy character—whether one of these kinds or others, make them unpredictable.

October 23, 2012 22:38 UTC

Tags: character, creepy, unpredictability

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