Archetypes in fiction are not always clean cut. For example, a villain is an antagonist but an antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a villain. A monstrous antagonist like Frankenstein’s monster can be compassionate; or conversely inhumane like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Today I’m going to focus on the latter. By delving into the anatomy of these monstrous creatures both natural and supernatural, I wanted to create a small guide on how we can create them effectively ourselves.
Although I don’t consider myself a genre writer, the realms of what would be classed as science-fiction, fantasy and horror massively appeal to me. Remember that we can use any kind of character in any kind of story. We don’t have to write ourselves into a box!
I Only Have Eyes for You
I don’t know about you but I’m always more intimidated by monstrous antagonists that make as few appearances as possible.
Take the film title Jaws for example, or the novel Dracula. If you’d never watched or read them you’d be right to think these characters were like: ‘it’s all about me! Me! Me! Me!’ and turn up in every other scene wearing oversized sunglasses and a feather boa.
But you’d be mistaken. Although their presence is inferred (and strongly felt), in reality they keep very much to the deeps and the shadows. As fear is built in the imagination, the technique of ‘holding back’ is extremely effective in revealing the character to the reader.
It simmers the tension until you’re left with a delicious sauce you could lick with a spoon…before running away to hide behind a bush, or a bigger boat.
Heart of Darkness
Find me somebody to love, find me somebody to love, find me somebody to love…
And so we shall. These creatures can’t be all ‘bad’ surely? They may despise mankind and think people are tasty when they’re smothered in gravy, but it doesn’t mean they can’t love in their own twisted way.
I always remember a scene from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow where Christopher Walken (AKA headless horseman) is described as the most evil human on the planet. Yet just before he dies and becomes his monstrous self, his horse Gunpowder is shot. He bends down and regards it with sadness and love, comforting it in its final moments.
This sparked my writer’s brain and made me realise something important about antagonists. They have to have gooey feelings for something. Whether it’s a living thing, a love of heraldry or baking programmes, it no doubt adds believability and complexity to these characters.
Don’t worry too much about the horse though. He was soon resurrected with his master to make daily trips to and from hell. Happy days.
All Brawn and All Brain
It’s common for monstrous antagonists to possess physical prowess, either bodily or through technology. The most memorable ones however, have the brains to match.
Take Mr Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Although smaller than Dr Jekyll, his shadow-side is an intelligent sociopath that threatens to overwhelm his kinder nature.
Having an intelligent antagonist adds another complication to the pile for the protagonist(s). As writers want to give them as many as possible, it’s a great way to keep the ball rolling.
Fingers Like Knives, Sharp Sharp Knives
This is arguably the creepiest feature of the monstrous antagonist’s anatomy: the one characteristic that defines it and allows it to remain in readers’ minds forever.
I was referring in the subheading to Freddy Kruger from the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Although I’m not a huge fan of these films, I only need to see this guy’s silhouette to make me run for the hills where they probably have eyes.
Of course the protagonist(s) usually have the wits to outsmart their adversary, but giving them a terrifying characteristic will make this more challenging. It makes it really hard to think straight when adrenaline begins to hijack the system through the fight/flight response. This provides yet another obstacle. Yay!
Their Achilles Heel
Yet there’s light at the end of the tunnel. All monstrous antagonists have something that repels them. From sunlight to silver bullets, from the colour lilac to lactose intolerance, a weakness will exist somewhere.
The tricky thing is finding out what that is. Time to consult the dusty books in the old library of the ancient vault of the hidden den of the faraway mountain. Maybe. One of my favourite weaknesses is the Basilisk’s in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So snaky, so slithery; yet shove a rooster in its face and make it squawk? Bad day for the Basilisk.
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So which are some of your favourite monstrous antagonists and why? Do you have any inspirations of your own? Characteristics? Weaknesses? I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, check out this funny and informative article from Chuck Wendig, offering some amazing tips on creating antagonists, monstrous or otherwise.
Until next time,