Back in my teenaged fanfic days, I decided to write a sprawling epic story. A story that basically crossed Digimon with World War 2. A huge conflict that would put our heroes against impossible odds. I wrote a massive war novel in the world of Sonic the Hedgehog.
In battle animes like Digimon, there’s a progression to the power flow. The heroes fight a bad guy. They get stronger. They find the bad guy’s commander. They defeat him. They get stronger. They find the next rank of bad guy, and on up it goes. By the end, the heroes and villain are throwing galaxies at each other.
If I wanted my heroes to get strong, I needed a stronger bad guy. I needed a scary one. So I went to the scariest villain I had read at that time: Sauron from Lord of the Rings.
Sauron has no screen time. He speaks exactly 1 line. Yet he is absolutely terrifying. As I studied the mechanics of how this worked, I realized that it broke down like this:
- Heroes can read Sauron’s mind
- His Eye is felt
- His influence is felt
- His armies are seen (and they’re bad)
- His Nazgul are seen (and they’re bad)
- He controls a freaking volcano
- His power can corrupt people from far away (the Ring)
- He can alter the weather
The heroes talk about him with dread and horror
Yet the closest we ever get to seeing him is Pippin’s account of looking into the palantir. Sauron is never described.
After LOTR, I attempted to read Wheel of Time. I successfully bored my way through book 2, The Great Hunt. In the end of that book, Rand faces off with the evil skeletal bad guy who is basically Sauron.
And you know what? It wasn’t scary. It was sort of dumb. Kind of like the first Hulk movie. Once he was on screen, the villain’s threat diminished to that of a cackling cartoon character.
The LOTR movies suffered from the same problem. Sauron is reduced to a searching spotlight outside a prison complex. Not really … you know … menacing.
So, if I wanted to make my Big Bad scary, I’d have to keep his screen time to a minimum.
So along came Leviathan. He was based on the characteristics from Job 41.
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? 2 “Can you put a rope in his nose Or pierce his jaw with a hook? 3 “Will he make many supplications to you, Or will he speak to you soft words? Lay your hand on him; Remember the battle; you will not do it again!
9 “Who can strip off his outer armor? Who can come within his double mail? 14 “Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth there is terror. “Nothing on earth is like him, One made without fear. 34 “He looks on everything that is high; He is king over all the sons of pride.”
Like Sauron, he was invincible, except for one tiny weakness. He was this self-healing nanite-based android with a super-computer brain. He made himself into the Borg King and began assimilating the entire world into his cyborg army.
I used my observations about Sauron and followed them closely. Leviathan appeared at the beginning of the story, at his birth, and the end, at his death. The rest of the book is about the heroes fighting his armies, dealing with refugees, and rescuing each other from cyborg assimilation.
Levi, himself, remains off-screen. It builds this growing, horrible dread the longer the story goes. And the more enormous, horrible things that happen, the more his reputation grows. The scarier he becomes. And we haven’t seen him in hundreds of pages.
And it must have worked, because tons of people begged permission to use Levi in their own stories. I read as many as I could find. Everyone wanted their characters to kill him, too. But nobody had figured out how to make him as scary as I did–they gave him too much screen time.
When Levi is on screen, he’s just a robot dinosaur. Oh, he’s strong and menacing enough. But he doesn’t have the presence of doom that he achieves by staying off-camera.
Now, this won’t work for all villains. Lots of times the villain must have screen time because he’s just as interesting as the hero, with his own journey. Or he’s the hero’s best friend, even. I personally love my villains and show them as much as possible.
But sometimes you just want that backstage mastermind kind of villain who stays out of sight. The really scary one. I think Unbreakable said it best: