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Why people are scarier than monsters

It seems like you can’t swing a dead cat in a bookstore anymore without hitting a paranormal or horror book featuring zombies, vampires, werewolves, or even Victorian-era sea monsters.

When they’re done well, there’s nothing wrong with these books. But they tend to leave aspiring writers in these genres with a false impression about the genre: that you need some variety of monster to fill the role of scary villain. This is where things can go wrong, because honestly, monsters aren’t all that scary.

If your aim is to put real terror on the page, consider going with an ordinary human as your villain. The reason is simple:

Monsters don’t have any choice in the matter.

In classical formulations—which aspiring writers often gravitate towards in their early works—monsters are evil because they’re made that way. It’s in their nature. They have no particular choice about it, and consequently, they’re also often portrayed as not very intelligent either.

I can scarcely find a sufficient adjective to qualify the degree to which that saps their power as villains.

Just to pick one, let’s consider the zombie: a brain-hungry, mindless killing and eating machine, with the power to zombify the innocent with their purulent bite. Now I’m not saying zombies fail to register at all on the fear scale. The zombie’s utter relentlessness helps. The whole zombie horde thing does have a certain panache to it. They do constitute a threat, which gives some default amount of fear.

But that’s about it. Once your good guys figure out that they can outrun the zombie-shuffle basically forever, and that the classic shovel-to-the-neck move will save them in a tight spot, the fear is over.

Zombies have no choice about what they do, so they can’t respond to the protagonists in any meaningful way. They can’t change their tactics or even their goals. From a storytelling perspective, when you’re trying to build tension and suspense, that sucks. The same shovel-to-the-neck that saves somebody on page 20 will still work on page 200. Mindless zombies are entirely predictable. How boring is that?

It’s the same with other monsters. Werewolves have to bite because it’s what they do. No big deal: just lock yourself inside somewhere safe on the night of the full moon. There’s a strategy for dealing with werewolves, one for vampires (wooden stakes / crosses / holy water), and so forth.

Emphasis on the singular: A strategy. Monsters that lack free will do present a threat but it’s not enough to sustain genuine suspense, tension, and fear through a whole book. There’s just no tension when the same strategy keeps working, over and over, against the same threat. To get suspense, tension, and fear, your protagonists need to face a series of unpredictable challenges in overcoming the monsters.

Free will creates unpredictability

But what about ordinary humans? Humans have free will. They can and do make choices. This makes them unpredictable, and that’s what creates the fear. Remember, fear comes primarily from the unknown. Something that is unpredictable cannot be known or deeply understood, and thus remains scary.

You never know what a villain who has genuine free will—and the intelligence to use it—is going to do. Readers and protagonists alike have to stay on their toes, because the villain can (and should) spring unpleasant surprises on them.

There’s a second reason why free will creates scary villains. It’s more subtle, but much more powerful. Free will means that the villain, somewhere in his past, made a choice to be bad. Maybe it was all at once, maybe it was some kind of slippery-slope scenario, but somewhere that person decided to be evil.

Consider Hannibal Lecter. Somewhere along the line, he decided that satisfying his own twisted desires was in fact more important than the harm he was doing to others. Lecter is smart. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, he just doesn’t care. Somewhere in his past, he had a choice between good and evil, and he picked evil.

To me that implies a level of malice that is so far above the mindless, no-choice evil of ordinary monsters that it’s not even on the same scale. The unpredictability and malice of willful evil creates suspense and fear that trumps garden-variety monsters any day.

Have your brains and eat them too

Fortunately, this is one of those rare cases in life where it’s not that difficult to have it both ways. If you want to put monsters in the lead villain role, fine. Just step away from the classic formulations of them. Give us zombies that may be innately driven to eat the brains of the living, but make them crafty and cunning about it.

Whether living or undead, give your villains free will and the intelligence to use it. Keep them unpredictable and they’ll remain scary for the whole book.

January 12, 2010 19:13 UTC

Tags: character, choice, good and evil, malice, monsters, fear, drama, suspense

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