For the ongoing (unending) rewrite of Throwing Fire, I’ve been thinking a lot about what scares me. I want my main character to be really, really scared. More scared than he’s ever been before, even in a number of life-threatening situations. What induces that level of fear?

Part of the problem with the current draft is that although I’ve given my protagonist big stakes (losing the one person who matters to him), the thing that’s threatening him isn’t really very scary. The antagonist is just a normal human. Smart and resourceful, but just a person. Nothing to inspire the level of fear I’m going for. I do not want the bad guy to be more laughable than scary when I pull aside the curtain. I’ve seen this issue arise in a number of different books and films (Turn Coat in the Harry Dresden series and Spectre in the most recent Bond series come to mind). I don’t want “the big reveal” to be a let down; I want my antagonist to be really freaking frightening.

Sure, I could make the antagonist an extra-dimensional world-killer (Cthulhu will probably always be my favorite “big bad”). That’s scary. Not very realistic, though. I’d rather tap into a more basic fear.

My teen and her friends watched the It reboot recently, and in talking with Child about why Pennywise is so scary (other than . . . you know, he’s a clown), she said, “because you can’t really kill him. He just keeps coming back.” Now that, I thought, is bloody scary. An implacable, unstoppable antagonist. It could be an extra-dimensional being like Pennywise, or a cybernetic hunter-killer like the Terminator, or the hoodie-demons in Kate Griffin’s wonderful Midnight Mayor (which I’ve blogged about before, here), or it could just be a human that comes back and back, no matter how many times you think you’ve defeated them. That’s truly terrifying (and a worthy challenge for my protagonist).

Also, it occurs to me, that flipped on its head, it’s that quality of implacability, the refusal to yield even in the face of certain death, that defines heroes like Batman, Captain America and even Harry Potter. When it’s the villain who has this quality, I think it ups the game for the hero (or in the case of Throwing Fire, anti-hero) in just the way I’m looking for.

Do you find an implacable villain scary? Or is the unstoppable villain too unrealistic to get your heart pounding? Leave me a comment and let me know!

6 thoughts on “What Scares Me: The Implacable Villain

  1. I don’t think it has to be unrealistic at all. Off the top of my head, one way in which a ‘normal’ human might fit the bill would be if they have dehumanised the protagonist. Why stop if what you seek to destroy has no inherent value? I usually find what brings this point home for me is if the villain does not talk to the protagonist, and merely gets on with the killing/maiming/villain-ing. That is why the terminator terrified me, and why I thought the vampires in 30 Days of Night (at least to start with) were so much more frightening than the chattier brand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooo, that’s a great observation. The Terminator and the vampires in 30 Days of Night (at the beginning) were both terrifying for this reason. I like the idea of the villain not speaking to the protagonist as a way of showing how little the villain thinks of the protag’s inherent value. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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