February 13, 2012
Make the bad guy smart.
This is probably the biggest stumbling block to getting good fiction going. If the threat isn’t credible or real, then the plot falls apart.
The problem, however, is that it’s difficult to think of a character that is smarter than you. This usually leads to a lot of horror movies having a villain of average intelligence coming up against foes who can best be described as being dumber than soup. It’s not really the writer’s fault, of course. Whenever I try to come up with a serious villain for our Dungeons and Dragons games, for example, it’s easier to come up with a POWERFUL enemy, but a super-smart one that can predict what my players would do? That’s asking too much.
Sometimes, I think my players get their logic and tactics advice from monkeys hoped up on PCP.
This, however, goes to the heart of the problem with many horror movies. The villains just aren’t exciting. They can be powerful, yes, but that’s not the same thing. You can’t kill Michael Meyers of Freddie Krueger. Death is inescapable in Final Destination. In fact, I would argue most deaths in horror movies stem from the fact that the people in horror movies have never seen a horror movie. Scream, of course, played with this years ago, but it’s something that’s been forgotten.
Through sheer pop culture osmosis and years of constant bombardment with action movies and clichés from every corner of the globe, you have to assume that at least one person in a horror movie will be familiar with tropes and conventions. They may not know they’re in a horror movie, and I would argue against it since then you get all meta and self-referential, but you’d think someone would have a semblance of survival instincts.
Writing a character smarter than you is not difficult, though, if you remember that there are real-life people who are smarter than you. We need to look back at old stories, old movies, and see what those people did. If we can’t innovate, let’s imitate, at least at first.
Remember: learn the rules, bend the rules, break the rules.
After all, if the writer is familiar with the obvious or tried-and-true, then the villain will be well-versed in these things as well. Some movies have actually touched on this. Behind the Mask was a wonderful examination of what a “real” movie serial killer needed to do in order to make things work. It involves a lot of preparation and research, setting up traps, and otherwise thinking three steps ahead. Think of the wonderful dynamic between Clarisse and Hannibal Lecter, both professionals yet one clearly more mentally capable than the other.
One of my favorite gaming stories involves a party using a standard ten-foot pole to trigger traps while safely out of the blast radius of many spells. When they came across a huge twenty-foot-tall door with a trap built in, they again used the pole. The trap? The heavy door fell on them.
Mindless killers and monsters work when they exist in a vacuum or when the heroes honestly can’t run anywhere else. Let’s not only put our stories in the modern world, complete with all the trappings, but with villains that know how to get around and can actually outsmart the heroes.
Then again… do we really need all this just for a good story?
Continued in Part 3
While we wait for Part, might I indulge you in the eternal battle between man and woman?