Think Like a Horror Writer to Create Better Villains

From SWFA:

You write speculative fiction for the same reason you’ve read or watched it your entire life. There’s something inside of you that craves tales of relatable characters overcoming adversity. It’s your inner hero, and it manifests on that illuminated screen when you sit alone, clicking away on the keyboard. That something becomes the characters that you put your heart and soul into, hoping to all things sacred that your readers will love them–because after all, they’re a part of you.

But what about the bad guy? Every element in good storytelling exists for one of two reasons: it either builds tension (conflict) or releases it (resolution). Genre fiction often utilizes an antagonist to build its tension. Since horror thrives on developing this character, authors of other speculative genres can learn a lot from horror writers about creating good villains. There are many ways to craft a good bad guy, but this horror author has found that they essentially boil down to three “R”s.


Whether your bad guy is a malevolent mastermind from another realm, a big, dumb troll, or a serial killer, your task as a writer is to make me believe he is real within the world you’ve created. After all, how could something phony pose any real threat? If it’s sentient, consider adding a humanistic quality: Jealousy. Genuine anger. A moment of empathy. Maybe even a brief second-guessing of the morality of his actions. Anything with which your audience can relate, and therefore, believe. Unless this character is invisible, be diligent in your physical description of him. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many authors over-describe their heroes, yet under-describe their bad guys. Think of your story in terms of visual-media, and give your antagonist some close-ups. Tell me about his rancid breath as he leans in to place cold, steel chains on your heroine’s wrists. How do the warm drops of sweat feel as they roll off his bald head to land on her face? Are the threads that stick out from the bottom of his robe frizzed? You don’t have to describe every crack in his pinky-nail, but a few cleverly placed details will give him flesh.


Not just menacing to the world at large, either. This malevolent force should be particularly menacing to your hero or heroine. A manifestation of their fears and past failures. His very existence should threaten something dear, even if it’s only their sanity. Reveal just how terrible he is in increments, as the story unfolds, through acts of treachery. Deviate from your outline, and use him to kill a character you never intended to kill (if it hurts you, it will hurt your readers.) Progressively change the tone of your writing to reflect your hero’s growing distress with each revelation. This will cause the audience to sympathize with them, putting them in your hero’s shoes, and increasing the satisfaction of their ultimate triumph (or in the case of many horror stories, the impact of their failure).

Link to the rest at SWFA

4 thoughts on “Think Like a Horror Writer to Create Better Villains”

  1. Well, duh!

    Of course, in a world where writers have to send a message the bad guys become mouthpieces for the message and no longer bad guys, just tools of the machine.

    Yeah well, nothing to see here. Just old news is the new news.

    • Well, sometimes the protagonist is the mouthpiece.
      Or he hears both sides of the debate and chooses (whichever side the author favors). Other times, the author actually presents both sides and leaves it up to the reader to figure if the good guys or bad guys won. And sometimes stories *without* a message are just…hollow.

      Stories with a message don’t *have* to be bad, or hamhanded. Some are subtle and thought-provoking. Or the message is a question instead of a statement.

      It’s more a matter of intent and skill. And genre. Some genres work best when the author has something to say. Others are just for fun. There’s room for both.

      As to the OP: well, most everybody is the hero of their own story. Even the ones dishing unnecessary harm to others. Moustache-twirlers went out of style decades ago in everything but spoofs and really bad attempts. Fiction 101, right?

      • Stories with a message don’t *have* to be bad, or hamhanded

        The prejudice against message fiction is a bit overdone these days, though not entirely without justification given how easy it seems to be to write it badly/unconvincingly and still get published. However, if the message is inherent to the story being told, and that story is not bent out of shape by the needs of the message, the result can be satisfying even to readers who reject the authors moral.

        Sometimes, of course, the messaging can be both bad and good. Consider The War of the Worlds where the “big” message – anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism or just hubris, however you want to characterise it, though any one word oversimplifies – is woven into the very fabric of the story. The anti organised religion lesson though is a pretty ham-fisted addition and nothing is gained from the inclusion of the curate (save for his final role in attracting the Martian investigation).

        • The best SF is stories with something to say. And yes, it needs to integral to tbe story (like cautionary tales) and preferably thought provoking. The latter can be about making folks question tbeir assumptions, take another look at the world around them, or (momentarily) wish they could live in the fantasy world. Or make reality even a bit like it.

          The problem these days is that too often it is the story that isn’t integral to the message.

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