Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In popular fiction, including horror, it is to the writer’s advantage to make his or her villains despicable so that readers will despise them. In other words, it behooves writers to vilify their villains.
Normally, this feat is accomplished fairly easily. One need only show the antagonist, monster or otherwise, do something that is so utterly atrocious that readers refuse to sympathize with him, her, or it.
As human beings, we want to sympathize with others. We would prefer to like them, but, if we are unable to do so, we would, at least, like to understand them, for understanding others, even those who are cruel and evil, humanizes them.
That which is inhuman is more than merely frightening; he, she, or it is terrifying, largely because he, she, or it is altogether alien. What is totally strange and unknown is also unpredictable, and the unpredictable is terrifying.
Some deeds, by their very nature, put those who do them in the Totally Other, or Alien, category. We cannot sympathize with them, and we refuse to identify with them; they are inhuman. They are monsters. Their despicable deeds make them so.
Genres other than horror also sometimes make their antagonists inhuman and, therefore, monstrous. The Western Tombstone begins by depicting a band of outlaws’ slaughter of a wedding party, including the bride and groom--and the priest who was to marry them. From the outset, audience members regard them as fiends in human form and are rooting for Wyatt Earp to destroy them.
Usually, stalking, harming, and, especially, killing an innocent, such as a faithful canine or feline companion or, worse, a child will automatically put the perpetrator of such a crime on the readers’ most wanted list. Stephen King adopts this tactic in many of his novels; IT and Desperation are good examples. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is another.
The brutal beating or rape of a woman also suffices to render a villain beyond contempt. King employs this stratagem in Rose Madder, and Dean Koontz favors it in many of his novels. Likewise, in the Clint Eastwood film Sudden Impact, even Dirty Harry lets the killer of her sister’s rapists off the hook when she takes the rapists to task with a bullet to the groin, followed by a second to the brain.
Vilifying the villain has another benefit for writers, too. After an antagonist’s inhuman deeds has rendered him, her, or it monstrous, readers will support virtually anything the hero or heroine does to the villain, including torture, for such a fiend, they will believe, deserves whatever befalls him, her, or it. Some deeds bring not only retribution, but also vengeance with a vengeance, so to speak. Think of Hitler. What punishment would have been too harsh in repayment for the horrors he inflicted upon millions? Or Ted Bundy. Was electrocution too light a penalty for what he did to all the women he tormented and killed?
Vilifying the villain allows writers to up the intensity of the action and, when payday finally comes, the price that he, she, or it is forced to pay at the hands of the protagonist-become-avenger.