Bad Guys: Everything I Need to Know about Bad Guys, I Learned in Childhood
“It’s a fiction writer’s job to remember childhood’s hard lessons about vulnerability and dangers, and then to rouse those memories and fears in readers.”
~Jessica Page Morrell, Bullies, Bastards & Bitches
Think back to when you were a small child—as early as you can go back. Which of the following held more fear for you:
- A parent’s warning, “Don’t take candy from strangers.”
- A parent’s warning, “Don’t run with scissors.”
- Monsters in the closet/under the bed.
- The strange house on the corner (the “witch’s” house—or the house where the mean old lady/man lived).
- Scary movies/cartoons or characters therein.
- Bad dreams.
- Ghost stories.
For many, many years (up into elementary school) I had to sleep with the bedroom door open and the hall light on—and the closet doors completely closed. I don’t really remember any specificity of being afraid of the dark or of “monsters” in the closet, but that’s the way it was. (As a matter of fact, I still have to make sure that the closet door in my bedroom is closed—completely latched—before I’ll go to bed. But that may be more OCD than anything else—all of the dresser drawers have to be completely closed, too.)
Fear is a natural and, usually, a healthy emotion. Fear keeps (most of) us from doing stupid things that will result in hurting ourselves. Fear is the emotion that taps into what modern psychologists like to call the “lizard” part of our brain—or the deepest, most primal place within us where we’re all reaction and no reason. Fear is a part of our natural defense system. When we are afraid, there are certain physical reactions in our bodies—a higher flow of adrenaline that seems to heighten our senses and make us more keenly aware of what’s around us. Most of our deepest fears can be linked to experiences we’ve had or circumstances we’ve been conditioned to react to: a child bitten by a dog may be afraid of dogs; a woman who survived a plane crash as a child might be phobic of flying. Sometimes fears are part of our cultural upbringing (going back to Tuesday’s post about what “bad” is). As children, we’re told stories of evil stepmothers (so we naturally see a stepmother as someone who might be an adversary later in life); stories of old crones who want to eat children (so we’re afraid of old people); a song about a bridge falling down (so we develop a fear of driving across bridges). In every culture in the world, there is some kind of storytelling tradition that is built on playing upon people’s fears, whether it’s to teach a lesson or to just full-out scare people just for the sake of scaring them.
When we create bad guys, we want to play upon our readers’ fears—we want to tap into that primeval part of the brain and make our readers squirm, make them connect with the characters emotionally because they’re actually experiencing some of the same feelings/sensations the character should be feeling. In fiction, we can introduce the reader to characters they’d never meet in real life—to characters they would never want to meet in real life—by drawing upon the “bad guys” we’ve experienced in our real lives:
- The school bully
- The mean cousin or relative
- The abusive adult
- The teacher who hated you
- The boy- /girlfriend or spouse who cheated on you
- The boss who made your life miserable
- The people in the clique/club you wanted to be in but wouldn’t let you in
- The kids who were always made team captain in P.E. and always left you ’til you were the last person standing and they had to take you
- The P.E. teacher
- The sadistic personal trainer at the gym
I think you get my drift. When we’re creating antagonists for our heroes/heroines to come up against, we usually don’t have to look further than our own past experiences. And the further back you can go, the better.
1. What are some of the fears you remember from childhood that you can draw on to add suspense/tension/conflict that could be used to add conflict/tension/suspense to a story?
2. Who are some people (no names need be mentioned) in your past who could serve as templates to start building an antagonist character?