This post is the fifth in a series of 7 Tips for Writing Epic Super Villains. Check out the earlier posts below:
Tip 5. Make the Villain Scary
The most epic villains are always the ones that sent a shiver down your spine. As we’ve discussed, villains have to be credible, but they also have to be able to evoke fear in the reader.
Fear is a great emotion for a reader to experience. It gives readers a vicarious thrill and the excitement of experiencing what it’s like to be in the superhero situation without leaving the comfort of their own chair. We want to make readers afraid of the super villain, and to do that, we’re going to be taking a few pages from horror stories.
You make the reader afraid by telling him what happens if the villain wins. This is establishing the stakes, and telling as vividly as possible what’s going to happen to the hero, to the people the hero cares about, and even to the world itself if the hero can’t win. And, if you’ve made the villain credible, then you’re already starting out from the point where it looks like the villain can’t lose. If the villain wins, the hero dies. If the villain wins, the city is turned into a radioactive, smoking ruin. If the villain wins, the nation starts slaughtering its own people for being different, mutants, meta-humans, nerds, and so forth.
You make the reader afraid by showing him the true evil of the villain. One of the guidelines that we’ve talked about is that the character has to be evil by their own choice. Here’s where you have the chance to show the reader just how evil that character can really be. All of our normal rules and laws don’t apply to him. He is above the law, or so powerful that our police and military can’t touch him, and end up being slaughtered if they even try. If you want to make the reader really scared, make it so that even the laws of physics don’t apply to the super villain. He can walk through walls, kill people with his mind, turn a crowd into psychically possessed zombies, or make people explode just by looking at them.
You make the reader afraid by threatening the characters that the reader roots for. As a writer, you always want to have you reader emotionally investing in the superhero and the people in the superhero’s life. One of the classic reasons for the secret identity of superheroes is to protect their loved ones. If villains were to find out the superhero’s identity, then they could simply blackmail the superhero by threatening their defenseless family or friends. If you can make the reader care about the superhero and those around him, then you can scare the reader by having the super villain threaten those people. If you want to make Spiderman do something, you threaten Aunt May. If you want to make Superman back off, you threaten Lois Lane in a way that his superpowers can’t prevent.
One last trick from horror stories that can make the reader afraid is you take away every refuge from the hero, so that there is no safe place for the hero to hide, catch their breath, or plan a counterattack. This relentless stripping away of all of the hero’s defenses and sanctuaries raises the concern the reader feels for our hero’s fate. If the hero is not given a chance to rest, neither is the reader, and you can keep on ratcheting the tension higher and higher with every move the super villain makes and that the superhero has to respond to. If you want to make readers concerned about a classic character such as The Shadow, you have to start by eliminating or subverting the Shadow’s agents and compromising or destroying the Shadow’s sanctums and hiding places. This was used to great effect by the Shadow’s arch nemesis Shiwan Khan in the DC Comics series “The Shadow Strikes.”
Make the reader scared of the super villain, and you’ve taken a giant step towards making the super villain and epic super villain.
A perfect example of a truly scary super villain is the Terminator. This 1984 movie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, has a cyborg come back from the future to kill a single woman. The terminator will not let anything, or anyone, get in the way of his mission. No matter what our heroes do, the terminator just keeps coming after them and kills anyone and everyone who gets in his way. He gets shot, burned, blown up, and yet he still keeps coming after Sarah Connor. And the really scary part is? That there are more like him in the future and they’re going to keep coming back until the mission is complete.
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Tune in again tomorrow for another tip. Same bat-time, same bat-channel. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the tips and the series in the comment area below!