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Bad Guys: Everything I Need to Know about Bad Guys, I Learned in Childhood

Thursday, August 20, 2009


“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.

For Discussion:
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?

  1. Thursday, August 20, 2009 8:41 am

    Um, I was the queen of childhood fears here. 😉 I mean, everything. Most of it was movie characters. The old hag in Snow White, Blind Pew on Muppet Treasure Island, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Maa on Babe (that was a weird 0ne). Usually they hid in the corner of the closet, where I thought they would pop out any minute. (Especially Bill Gaye from In Search of the Castaways…in the film he popped out of a dark corner…so that didn’t help.) In our house we had a ceiling fan in the hallway right by my room, and the two little cord thingies you pull to turn on the light/fan would click together when the fan was on…vibration, you know. Anyway, so at night the click….click…click…sounded like Blind Pew’s first scene, when all you hear is his cane tap…tap…tap up the lane. Not good. Oh, and the siamese cats hid behind this big armoire I had in my room. Any minute the cymbals would crash and up their tails would pop up!

    Wow, thanks for the trip down memory lane. 😉 As far as people I knew…hmm. Have to think on that one.


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 11:18 am

      I couldn’t STAND the witch in Snow White…to this day that film isn’t one of my favorites, mainly due to the horrible nightmares I used to have featuring that hag!!


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 2:21 pm

      Supposedly, the witch in Snow White scared the snot out of a very young Steven Spielberg and made him into what he is today.

      The Disney villain that scared me the most as a kid and makes me hate the movie to this day is the whale in Pinocchio. We lived in Alaska, and around the time we saw the movie, we’d been somewhere that we’d seen whales. And we also had earthquakes there. I remember thinking (at around age three) that there were whales under our house and they were trying to upend it they way the whale did to the raft in Pinocchio.


      • Thursday, August 20, 2009 3:24 pm

        The story of my exposure to the hag was kinda funny…

        My mom, knowing the freaky factor of the old lady, put Snow White off limits for us until we were old enough to “handle her”. Well, so one day when I was eight, I went to a friend’s house, and they were watching Snow White. Well, I was the quiet, go-with-the-flow kind of gal, so I was afraid to speak up and actually say, “Um, my mom doesn’t want me watching this.” Needless to say, I wondered for a while there after about three weeks straight of nightmares if it was punishment from God. 😉 Took five years for those nightmare to go away.

        Love the whales, Kaye! I thought Ursula from The Little Mermaid was hiding under the bed and was going to throw up a tentacle and grab me. My poor little unfortunate soul.


  2. Thursday, August 20, 2009 9:04 am

    I had a really nasty teacher in the short time I attended a Catholic school. Thinking about her now makes me want to go hug my kids!


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 2:23 pm

      My third grade teacher was awful . . . and of course two years later she’d switched to teaching fifth grade. Fortunately, I ended up with the teacher who was nice but just didn’t know much of anything. (That was the year I got tested for learning disabilities because I was getting Ds and Fs on all my homework assignments—because I wasn’t completing them because they bored me—but passing all my tests with As and Bs; and I tested college and post college on everything. And they still considered holding me back.)


  3. Thursday, August 20, 2009 9:11 am

    I never thought about all the bad guys in children’s stories until I became a parent, there are some mean ones out there.

    On the story that I am working on now, my bad guy really doesn’t appear until almost half way through it, so I used the journaling concept throughout the story to keep conflict in the story.

    This story is also based on dreams and I used a recurring childhood dream that I had in the story.

    The scariest movie that I saw entirely too young was The Town that Dreaded Sundown. I slept with the lights on for weeks after that.


    • Sylvia permalink
      Thursday, August 20, 2009 9:35 am

      I’ve never seen that film you refer to, but some scary movies aren’t even fit for right-minded, Christian adults to view. I think it’s time Christian adults put restrictions on their own viewing of films. Just because they are emotionally able to handle something doesn’t mean it’s right morally and spiritually.


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 2:27 pm

      I’ve mentioned before about when I was in sixth grade and they showed us the classic film version of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. I sat there in the dark with my head buried in my arms almost the whole movie and I still had nightmares for months. As an adult, I didn’t go see the first Mummy movie (the Brendan Fraser) movie at the theater because I was concerned it would give me bad dreams by being to vivid/scary. Little did I know . . . 🙂


    • Stephanie permalink
      Saturday, June 4, 2011 3:05 pm

      Deborah: True. We think Disney is totally innocent, but there are some serious villains out there. The two worst I’ve seen in recent years are Zira from The Lion King 2 (parent gone mad) and Dr. Facilier of The Princess and the Frog. But what’s interesting about Facilier is that you can sort of feel sorry for him because it’s his voodoo that got him where he is in the first place. Ah, the complex villain…


  4. Sylvia permalink
    Thursday, August 20, 2009 9:30 am

    Mine was definitely dead bodies, viewings, and funerals. (…Shiver…)

    I remember going to my great-grandma’s funeral when I was probably seven or eight years old. That night I remember screaming in my bed. As I got older I wouldn’t scream or have nightmares. I just wouldn’t be able to sleep and my body would freeze up in a paralyzed state on my bed. My heart rate would go up. I would lay on either side all night because if I would lay flat on my back I would feel dead and picture a body in a coffin. I am getting close to thirty and think I have finally gotten past this.

    There are plenty of bad-guy angles one could get from this. I saw a Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) film awhile back that had this bad guy that would go around getting these single, rich ladies to give money to his “mission organization”. He then would take their fortunes and dispose of the ladies so they couldn’t tell. Holmes was able to rescue this one lady from that fate. The bad guy had chloroformed her and put her in a double-deep coffin with a real dead person on top of her. He was going to bury her alive like that! Holmes got to her in time, but the lady was severely brain-damaged for the rest of her life. The man who was in love with her went ahead and married her (I think) and just took care of her even though she didn’t seem to know him. Now, that is a hero!


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 11:16 am

      That Sherlock Holmes ep is one of my favorites – totally creeped me out the first time I watched it.


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 2:30 pm

      I guess I’m fortunate that I didn’t go to my first funeral until I was in seventh grade—when my paternal grandmother died; and I had a very clear understanding of death (and I don’t think it was open-casket; if it was, I didn’t go by and view the body).

      One of the L&O or CSI programs used a similar double-buried idea for one of their episodes. I started feeling like I was going to hyperventilate watching it because the gal was conscious but bound and gagged so she knew what was happening to her. Not an episode I’d watch as a re-run!


  5. Thursday, August 20, 2009 11:39 am

    This is great! You just gave me an awesome idea for my WIP!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I used to be afraid of the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. Probably fed my very vivid imagination as a child. We had a set of bullhors up in the storage room at the end of the hall from my childhood (up until age 6) bedroom. I used to think it was a witch. Hated to go in there, yet . . . I peeked in there on occasion hoping to catch a glimpse. Of course I always did because it was always in the same spot. I was always rather spiritual, even as a child, so I think I associated the bullhorns with the the devil’s so-called horns, and associated the witch with the devil. Anyway, it scared me for many years when I recalled it.

    The idea that this just spawned. There is something in the attic of my protagonist’s childhood home that her father never wanted her to see. Since they live on a coastal island, he tells her a seawitch is up there so she would never step foot in the attic. As an adult, she is facing her fears and going up into that attic is one of them. She will find exactly what she needs that will unlock many secrets for her. Will her antagonist be up in the attic when she goes up there and scare the living daylights out of her?

    Templates to build an antagonist character . . . giving me lots to think about here, Kaye. Often times an antagonist’s life, psychologically speaking, is based in fear. Fear he won’t get his just due, revenge, etc. That is often the root of what makes him Bad (as you were explaining previously) and feeds his cause. Paradoxically, he plays on the fears of others to reach his goals. Fear is a great motivator, isn’t it? This gives a lot of fuel that I never considered in this light for creating an antagonist. A few of my fears: rejection, abandonment, being misunderstood (deep well, there, but better now \o/ ) . My current WIP I’ve been having a really hard time finding an antagonist. I have an enemy to the main cause, but I felt I needed a secondary character, a wounded soul or sorts, who helps move things along. This discussion has been an exercise for creativity in developing this character. It fills the gap nicely. I’m thinking a young lady who had unreal expectations for a relationship with the hero, when the heroine returns to her childhood home it distrupts this girl’s plans. Since she doesn’t have the Lord in her life her fears quickly turn into a downward spiral of evil plotting against the heroine.

    Brainstorming here. Appreciate the opportunity!


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 2:31 pm

      Fantastic ideas—and I really like the idea of the antagonist hiding in the attic just to reinforce her childhood fear of going in there. Up the tension and the creep-out factor!


  6. Lori permalink
    Thursday, August 20, 2009 4:31 pm

    SPIDERS…..Spiders in any movie…yes, even Charlotte’s Web……creep me out! I could not even watch the movie trailer for Arachnophobia!

    The trees in the Wizard of OZ that throw apples kept me up for weeks as a kids.

    I, too, have to sleep with doors locked, closets closed completely, and I still check under the bed.

    Movies seen too early for my age…Nightmare on Elm Street ( I couldn’t even put the covers over my head because I was afraid Freddie would be there and for get going to sleep) I was 8 at the time.
    The original Exorcist (came out in 1973) I saw it when I was 6 or 7……to this day I won’t watch it and I only watch any scary movie during the day in full sunlight!


  7. Friday, August 21, 2009 1:57 pm

    Okay when I was little I saw something on tv that scared the crap out of me. I lived a very sheltered life and didn’t watch a whole lot of tv but I saw a story on Entertainment Tonight about a movie with Eddie Murphy as a vampire (Vampire In Brooklyn) and the clip they had shown scared me to death. I was never allowed to watch violent cartoons or anything so I wasn’t really exposed to violence. I remember sleeping with the covers all the way up to my neck for a REALLY long time after that (I know like that would have protected me but as a 9 year old I didn’t really think like that.) I still do that out of habit even though now I think vampires are totally cool 😀 I suppose I could use something along that lines to creat fear and tension in a story…I could use the blood and neck biting that gave me the heebie geebies to scare someone else…aren’t I nice?? 😛

    As for people I could use to create an antagonist…wow let’s see, the popular girls in high school, the evil algebra teacher who didn’t help me with anything and gave me my first and only C grade, and crazy neighbors! That’s alI can think of right now but trust me they’re enough to write a book on!!!


  8. Stephanie permalink
    Saturday, June 4, 2011 2:34 pm

    Hello, Kaye,

    Fellow (unpublished) writer here, saying thanks for giving me some idea of how to make my latest villain one we love to hate.

    All through childhood, doctors and their procedures scared the living daylights out of me. To be honest, outside of routine checkups and tests, they still do. And two of the best villains I’ve seen lately scared me because they made their victim sick (Brandilyn Collins’ villain in Over the Edge) or unjustly committed victims to a historical insane asylum (Lord Vale from Jillian Kent’s first book). Guns, swords, gold-diggers–meh. Tell me, “Your husband has twenty-four hours to give me what I want or you will die slowly and painfully, bleeding to death from Ebola”–whoa, I’m not messing with you!

    So thanks for reminding me that villains aren’t so tough–and giving me the idea.


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