Chillers, Thrillers, and Killers

What better way to spend Terror Tuesday than talking about the ones that make it all happen?

I just finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel and am in the middle of Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches right now, and it’s left me pondering what makes a strong antagonist.

When I think back over the literature that I read growing up, a lot of the Big Bads were really big. God big. Satan big. So how were they effective? How did David Eddings keep me reading for five books before he really introduced his Big Bad and we ever saw Torak’s melty face? I read a lot of epic fantasy, which always seems to have a lot of black and white (at least on the surface).

Think for a moment of the best, scariest, most disturbing antagonists you ever read/watched. Hold them in your mind, because we’re going to take them to our play pen.

Put them all in here! Let's see what they do!

In urban fantasy, the Big Bad is often an old scary vampire (Picary in the Hollows, the Mother in Anita Blake — or any other number of scary vamps in that world). While those can be effective, they need more than just the oogly-boogly factor to make them creep into your nightmares.

The Oogly-Boogly Factor

The Oogly-Boogly Factor is where that particular baddie lies on the spectrum of badness. What, you ask, is the spectrum of badness? Aha. Observe.

Spectrum of Badness

Here’s the key with the best Big Bads — they’ve been through the entire spectrum. When I think of the Big Bads I liked the most, the ones who stuck with me — these are the ones whose motives I understood, who may have even made me sympathetic to their cause at some point, and who have more depth to their character than just the Oogly-Boogly Factor.

You can plunk a character onto the Just Plain Evil part of the spectrum and call them a Big Bad from the get-go, but that won’t make them convincing. Sure, someone who kills at random is scary, but the methodical planning on serial killers is chilling.

Big Bads should also be stronger than the protagonist, at least initially. If the protagonist you’re rooting for can just smush them into smithereens before you can say yikes, that’s no fun at all. Boring. And that violates the basic rule of entertainment: don’t bore anybody.

Big Bads tap into our most primal fears. Something hiding in the dark. Something invading our safe places. Things that do what shouldn’t be done, make happen the things we dread the most. They make us children again, make us forget our adult sensibilities and make us want someone to tell us it’s not real.

Let’s look at a couple of my favorite Big Bads!

Caleb (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Image via Wikipedia

Creeptastic Preacher Man

Caleb the Preacher, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As many Big Bads as there were in that show, Caleb is one who has haunted me and who gives me chills each time I watch it. So where is he on the spectrum?

Caleb is full on Big Bad — we don’t see his progression during the show, but we do get glimpses of his back story.

Caleb’s primary characteristic is his misogyny. He calls women “dirty girls.” One interesting trait that he has is that he’s not hugely power hungry. He gets his power from the First Evil, but he bows to it willingly. He is murderous. One of the things that makes Caleb as terrifying as he is comes from the clothes he wears. Even if you’re not religious, his choice of outfit is disturbing. That collar is supposed to symbolize someone who is at least safe. Caleb makes it frightening. He uses religion in his rhetoric often, which adds another chilling layer to his persona. Here’s a quote that sums him up:

 Now, it’s a simple story. Stop me if you’ve heard it. I have found and truly believe that there is nothing so bad it cannot be made better with a story. And this one’s got a happy ending. There once was a woman, and she was foul, like all women, for Adam’s rib was dirty—just like Adam himself—for what was he, but human. But this woman, she was filled with darkness, despair, and why? Because she did not know. She could not see. She didn’t know the good news, the glory that was coming. That’d be you. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. You show up, they’ll get in line. ‘Cause they followed her. And all they have to do is take one more step, and I’ll kill them all. See? I told you it had a happy ending.

Since we’re on the Buffy subject, let’s look at the development of a Big Bad — see the progression across the spectrum. Buffy fans probably know who I’m talking about…

Willow transitions into Dark Willow in

Image via Wikipedia

Creepy Willow

Willow Rosenberg, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

To get a feel for the humble origins of this Big Bad, it might be better to show a before picture:

Willow with...pigtails?

Willow starts out as a stereotypical smart, nerdy girl. She’s shy and awkward, she’s in love with her best friend Xander, and she is so self-effacing that you want to just hug her.

As the series progresses, Willow experiences heartbreak and begins to explore the world of magic, becoming a powerful witch. She often misuses magic for selfish reasons, which backfires more than once. This is where she is lured by the dark side a bit. When her first love cheats on her and leaves her, she meets Tara.

Tara brings out the power in Willow. Together, they hone their craft and fall in love. Tara is kind, wise, and gentle. When Willow spirals out of control, addicted to magic (enter Kinda Naughty range of spectrum), Tara cuts her off and breaks up with her. Willow is forced to learn to give up the magic if she wants to heal her relationship with Tara — and succeeds.

Enter Warren.

Warren is going after Buffy, but he’s a crap shot with his pistol, and he shoots Tara through the heart, spattering her blood across Willow’s shirt. Traumatic Event.

It doesn’t take long for Willow to go off the deep end in her anguish. Willow’s transformation is incredible, because she goes through every bit of the spectrum to become Dark Willow. When she gets there, she is full on Big Bad. She’s lost her most treasured love. She’s vengeful. And best of all, we sympathize with her. I cheered her on when she went after Warren.

For the writers out there, how do you make your Big Bads convincing? Do you actively ensure that they are in some way pitiable or sympathetic? Where do they fall on the spectrum, and how did they get there? Even if all of that doesn’t end up in the book, you should know.

As I rework my book, one thing I’m doing is strengthening my Big Bad, making him more frightening, considering his back story. Even though he is downright terrifying, he has reasons for being that way.

I want to hear your thoughts!

Who are your favorite antagonists? How do you feel good antagonists add to a story? If you’re a Buffy fan, how did you feel about Caleb? Willow? 

Thank you for flying Terror Tuesday, do come back.


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on January 31, 2012, in Buffy, Terror Tuesday, urban fantasy, writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. In my novel, the Big Bad uses astral projection to haunt the protagonist, making the main character tired and creeped out most of the time. The villain uses this to his advantage when the protagonist eventually falls into a coma due to lack of sleep. Plus, the use of the dreamscape allows the Villain to take on various personas and use the main character’s fears against him.

    As for motivation, or back story, I believe my Big Bad is simple. He’s bad because he’s simply power hungry. He comes from a line of witches who seek immense power. Now, he’s after the protagonist to gain back the power he lost.

  2. Loved Caleb and Evil Willow both! 😀

  3. Although I’m a Josh Whedon fan, I haven’t seen many Buffy episodes. Now that I know Nathan Fillion was in it, I’m going to have to go back and watch!

    As for bad guys, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot with my WIP. My antagonist isn’t purely evil, in fact, I kinda like her, but she does create a lot of problems.

    • Yeah, this post was mostly regarding the antagonists who are pretty bad, but I also love when there is an antagonist who either is just ambiguous or actually a “good guy.”

      For instance, Holtz in Angel — this guy is on a revenge bint because Angel (when he was evil) murdered Holtz’s entire family and turned his little girl into a vampire, who Holtz was then forced to kill. Sympathetic? Oh yeah. He’s a man who hunts evil, and technically a good guy except for the vengeance that consumes him. Such a fascinating character.

      I will write another post later on that kind of antagonist, because I LOVE gray areas, and they make for great ones. Oddly, one of the primary antagonists of my second book (of the trilogy) is the protagonist from the first book. She got her ass handed to her in the first book, and it comes back to haunt her (bad metaphor…ass haunting) in the second book, taking it out on everyone else. It was hard to write, but also really enlightening.

  4. Oogly boogly….Ha. Love it! As a thriller fan and writer, I definitely value strong antagonists. I’m not very familiar with Buffy, but some of my favorites include Hannibal Lector, Cruella De Vil and the Wishbone Killer, from Amanda Kyle Williams’ series.

  5. Ultimate bad guys? Hannibal Lecter. Norman Bates. Were they evil? Oh, yeah. But we could relate and understand their motives.

    Watch out for Kate Brady’s bad guys. Poor little Chevy Banks. So misunderstood.

  6. I was fascinated with Willow’s progression to the dark side.I was easy to see how any one of us could have done the same under the same circumstances. I often wonder how many bad guys wonder how they got there? My big bad? The Lord Marshall in the Chronicles of Riddick. Nothing more frightening than a religious zealot.

  7. I do so love the baddies. Years ago I tried to write a sort of essay about them. Lex Luthor is likely my favorite, but that might just be Michael Rosenbaum’s influence (Smallville.) He’s quite complex, as he and Clark Kent were once good friends.

    I am also a fan of Darth Vader, not only is he the classic baddie, but I think the prequels actually made his story more full. Once could watch as he did horrible things for love, then became a slave.

    Agent Smith of the Matrix is another of my favorites.

    I think that knowing the baddie’s backstory is the most important thing to making him/her real. No one cares about bad guys who are bad just because they are bad. It’s best if they were once good, or have moments where the reader/watcher can connect with them in some way.

  8. I like the clarity of this post. No matter how much we love our protagonists, the bad guys are what drives them so we have to make them strong and hurt our beloved main characters. No bubble wrap allowed!

  9. Love the scale. A little naughtiness does go such a long way…and to watch a bad guy truly trickle and slide on down that scale with time? A wonderful progression if done right. Leaves lasting impressions, and allows us to empathize–or shudder–accordingly. It’s always great to have well-developed protagonists, but the antagonist is just as bloody key…

    Favorite antagonist? Hm. Toughy. Darth Vader’s pretty up there. I mean, my childhood self would kick my shins repeatedly if I didn’t put him up there. Anasarimbor Kellhus of Bakker’s “The Prince of Nothing” series (fascinating character all around, in that he always seems as much a protagonist as an antagonist!) is pretty well engrained in me as well. Bah…there are many that have stuck with me over the years. Couldn’t possibly do them all justice!

    And I adored Willow! Her and her progression throughout the series was probably one of my favorite parts of Buffy.

  10. This was a very thought-provoking post! I enjoy reading things like this and am so happy to have stumbled across it. Speaking of antagonists, though he doesn’t follow the spectrum and isn’t in the fantasy/horror sector, Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin is pretty disturbing…

    • Thanks! Antagonists can also be ambiguous or even allied with the side of good — I want to do a later post about that type of antagonist. They can be hugely rewarding and very effective.

  11. I don’t think I ever really considered Willow the antagonist, even when she went all creepy. There was only one episode when she nearly destroyed the world, other than that she was pretty much always on the side of the good guys! Although I agree her progression was fabulous.

    As for Caleb? Definitely seriously evil and frighteningly so.

    I liked Spike when he was the bad guy 🙂

    • My rationale for saying that Willow became an antagonist was this: Buffy is the protagonist. Buffy cannot kill for revenge, and her duty is to protect humans from supernaturals. Willow goes dark mojo, bent on killing the Trio. Buffy has to protect the Trio. Right there is the opposition, so for the sake of those couple episodes, she really did play the role of antagonist. Maybe not big evil forever, but she was the primary source of conflict for Buffy. I also only meant it in the context of the end of season six — I didn’t mean to imply that she was an antagonist for the rest of the series or at any other point.

      Spike was always super fun as a bad guy. 🙂

      • Yes, Willow was definitely the antagonist for about one episode, maybe two. Agreed. I’m just quibbling about your classification of her as one your favourite “big bads” from Buffy. Coz I define big bad as more the ‘seasonal’ variety. But don’t listen to me. I’m just being a pedant. ;-P

        Loved the post, truly 🙂

  12. The scariest antagonist I’ve ever come across is Randall Flagg from Stephen King’s novel The Stand. He is one of the few characters in a book that’s really terrified me to the point I’m afraid to turn off the light and go to sleep. Flagg is pure evil and he’s not a typical supernatural creature with some bit of good within in that we see in lots of paranormal fiction. He’s on a par with the devil.

  13. HA HA! the guy playing Caleb is the one playing Castle! I couldn’t stop laughing when I saw the picture.
    Anyway, back to the antagonist.
    I guess the type of antagonist also depend on the genre. When I read a thriller, I prefer if the bad guy is more around the big bad part of the spectrum, but when I read romance, I prefer when they are more of the understandable human part of the spectrum.

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