How my scariest villain was the least visible one

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.

gurren-lagann-galaxy-battle

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.

eye-of-sauron-desk-lamp-12053
The Eye of Sauron Desk Lamp from dudeiwantthat.com

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.”

leviathan1

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.

It’s AWESOME.

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:

there's always two kinds of villain; there's the soldier villain — who fights the hero with his hands; and then there's the real threat — the brilliant and evil archenemy — who fights the hero with his mind.

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6 thoughts on “How my scariest villain was the least visible one

  1. This is totally what happened with Firefly’s Reavers. In the show Firefly, they were SOOOOO scary. You never saw them. You saw the destruction they caused. You heard of the horrors of what they did. “If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” *shudder* You were never actually face-to-face with them; they were always offscreen. Then in the Serenity movie, we were introduced face-to-face with reavers within the first 10 minutes. *yawn* They lost ALL their menace and I was kind of annoyed! 😛

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    1. Yeah, good example! I think of old horror movies, like The Bad Seed. You never see the little girl murder anyone. You only see the mom taking the phone call. That was way more horrifying.

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  2. I have the entirety of Heart of a Chao printed out somewhere from back in the day. …I don’t think I had realized just how long that story was before I started printing it…

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  3. I love your sketch! That is just so cool. Did the kids like that sketch? You know I remember that story, but it has been years and years. The boys were so young and I think that was the favorite time of their life when you would read what you had written. Great times. Great story.

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  4. Great points all. I agree. I think the only other kind of villain that works well is the clever villain: The one who is snarky and elegant and hard and a little tragic and brilliant and who you kind of want to win because he steals the show. I see them often in TV shows and movies – Moriarty from Sherlock, Scar from the Lion King, Loki from The Avengers, The Joker from Batman – but you get them in books too. Thing is, they’re really hard to write. You have to get the vicious intelligence right, the unpredictability, the snark that never sounds corny…

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    1. OH yes, those villains are the loveable, intriguing ones–they’re the heroes of their own story. They edge toward being anti-heroes sometimes, too. (Like Magus from Chrono Trigger.) They’re not scary so much as chilling. Like Dr. Phoenix/Mr. Ashes from the Ashtown Burials series. You want chilling …

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