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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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9 Comments:

Posted by Julie Dao on January 13, 2010 17:23 UTC

Brilliant post - I completely agree. I’ve never been a big paranormal book fan but I did try out a few when the craze began. Monsters really don’t float my boat (especially ones that sparkle or show up in a Jane Austen), although I hear mummies may be big this year after the vampire/werewolf obsession wanes. But yes, people are much, much scarier!

Posted by John Benton on January 13, 2010 17:26 UTC

I’d always seen the monsters you describe as examples of man v environment instead of man v man. A tornado doesn’t have “motivation,” but can still inspire drama and conflict. Same for a horde of shambling zombies.

-J

Posted by Jason Black on January 13, 2010 19:54 UTC

I’d always seen the monsters you describe as examples of man v environment instead of man v man.

Interesting point, and that framework does eliminate the need for the monsters to be willful.

My concern is this: if you’re assuming a philosophical equivalence between a zombie horde and tornado, then you’re kind of stuck with some pre-determined outcomes. At least, if you want the book’s ending to be logically coherent with that philisophical underpinning.

What I mean is, you don’t defeat nature. You might think you have, but ultimately, you’re wrong. Nature always wins in the end, if only by showing you some unintended (and usually considerably worse) consequence of your apparent winning-move than whatever problem nature was facing your to begin with.

In real life, for example, we’ve tried to defeat the four seasons by constructing climate-controlled homes in which we can always be warm and dry, building indoor sports stadiums immune from the effects of weather, and shipping out-of-season foods from half a world away so we can eat without regard to what’s actually in season where we live.

For about 50 years now, we’ve patted ourselves on the back at our upset victory over nature, while enjoying mid-winter strawberries from Argentina. Bully for us, but this whole system has a down-side. It’s hugely energy intensive, and we’ve gotten that energy by burning fossil fuels. Result: global warming, which is going to saddle us with anywhere from one to ten meters of sea-level rise in the coming century. That’s going to flood out almost unimaginable amounts of land we currently count on.

Mother nature always wins. You play by her rules, or you suffer the consequences. Not always right away, but you do. Mother nature is also the ultimate master of the “payback’s a bitch” philosophy.

Yet in horror books with monsters, it is reasonable and expected that the protagonists will attempt to defeat the monsters. They’ll try to kill the zombie horde and end, permanently, that threat. Zombies (and all other manner of paranormal monsters) aren’t actually a part of nature in the real world, and as such readers rightfully react to them as genuine abberations that can and should be set to rights.

That is, we expect to see the characters achieve a genuine victory.

But if the monsters are really just an aspect of nature, then this is a-priori impossible. If we take monsters to be philosophically a part of nature, then that sets up an internal logical conflict that will make the book’s outcome ring hollow.

Granted, I haven’t spent an enormous amount of time thinking about this, but my gut feeling is that if you want your monsters to fill the role of nature-as-character, then you need to pick monsters that are actually a part of nature as we really know it. Certainly, the examples of this from existing works (Jaws, Cujo, etc.) show that real animals portrayed as monsters can be very scary, and produce very successful, long-lasting fiction.

Note that they split a nice balance between treating nature as a character, and retaining the ultimate undefeatability of nature by creating specific instances of animals who have become true abberations. It wasn’t that every Great White in the world suddenly developed a taste for human flesh; just that one did. Not every dog in the world, nor even every St. Bernard in the world, went crazy; just the one infected with the virus.

Strategies like that allow for a compelling yet mindless monster-victim that is simultaneously logically defeatable. A zombie horde, a vampire, a hell-demon, or anything else that’s made up just doesn’t fit the same bill.

Posted by Theresa Milstein on January 14, 2010 16:24 UTC

I recently read a helpful post talking about antagonists needing to have the same arc is protagonists. This is a great post too. All characters need motivation in your manuscript. It’s not enough to be “evil” or the story becomes one-dimensional.

Posted by Jason Black on January 14, 2010 17:26 UTC

Theresa, if you’re talking about the article from my blog on giving antagonists a character arc, it’s here.

Although in that article I’m not exactly arguing that they should have the same arc, merely that you can elevate a book to a higher level by finding arcs for the protagonist and antagonist that are somehow related. In this way, you can use the arcs to create an additional theme for the book that might be there otherwise, or enhance an “almost theme” to full theme status.

Posted by Randolph Lalonde on January 14, 2010 21:05 UTC

Fantastic post.

I’d like to add a little to the Hannibal Lecter versus zombie argument. The most horrifying scene in the Lecter films involved him feeding a victim pieces of his own brain, adding a new depth of horror to the thought of waking brain surgery. Now, isn’t that just so much more frightening than a zombie trying to chomp through someone’s skull like a ripe apple?

That said, I love human villains. The most compelling examples are the ones who are fairly certain that they have the correct methods and are working for everyone’s best interest. Misguided people make great baddies.

Posted by Jason Black on January 14, 2010 22:21 UTC

Thanks!

While I obviously agree that humans make the best (worst?) villains, the notion of villains as misguided people who believe they’re doing good is a whole other article. I touched on that a little bit in the article I cited earlier, but maybe I should do a whole post on it...

Posted by Mia Hayson on May 21, 2010 11:59 UTC

Great post :)

Whilst I write paranormal fiction for the main part, I completely agree that the best protagonists are Humans or those closest to human. There’s something innately scary about a threat close to home and so the Human monsters can be terrifying.

When I say “Human monsters” I am, of course, referring to both Humans and also monsters that have Human traits. It’s those traits that bring them to life (or to death??).

Posted by Susan Kelly on June 17, 2011 20:06 UTC

Love this post. Evil humans rule.

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